The first time my friends and I had lunch at Casa Vieja, we walked out the door afterward, turned to each other and said, “Let’s be regulars.”
Casa Vieja is not necessarily an unforgettable culinary experience, but this unassuming Colombian spot in a Carrollton strip mall is one of those restaurants that feel as comfortable and welcoming as being at home. It’s easy to relax into a booth at Casa Vieja, order one of the house specialty juices, start snacking on the kitchen’s comfort food and lose all track of time.
For those whose culinary tastes don’t venture much farther south than Mexico, Colombian food can be a breath of fresh air. The country is nearly as large as Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana combined, with an appropriately diverse culinary scene; Casa Vieja offers seafood dishes from the Caribbean coast and meaty platters typical of the Andes. Yucca, plantains and corn are staples.
The restaurant’s main courses are generously portioned, but appetizers and sides can still be tempting. Don’t pass up yucca ($5), fried until golden and crisp with just the right bit of crunch. Though a waiter might recommend dipping the yucca fries in “pink sauce,” a humble mix of ketchup and mayo, they’re perfect by themselves. The same goes for a more acquired taste: morcilla, or blood sausage ($4).
Casa Vieja’s empanadas ($3) are cooked to order, have a crispier crust than Argentine empanadas and no crimped edges. The turnovers, filled with brisket, potatoes, tomatoes and onions, look like little deep-fried bombs. On a full table of appetizers and sides shared with friends, one empanada is enough for two people.
Some of Colombia’s national dishes are well represented. The plantain leaf tamal tolimense ($11), named after its native Tolima region, is generously stuffed with big chunks of chicken, peas, carrots, potatoes and a few morsels of pork and beef. It’s a monster of a meal, but a delicious one. The same goes for the bandeja paisa ($13), a sort of sample platter with a super-thin cut of beef, an arepa, plantain, egg, sausage link, rice and beans. It’s like a South American version of the full English breakfast.
From the Caribbean coast come fish dishes, such as a whole tilapia scored and lightly fried ($18), the flesh peeling away easily and tasting as good as tilapia ever has. Frying does not always mean heavy texture or greasy fish, and the kitchen here does a great job lightening both the tilapia and the breaded catfish ($14), on which the batter is brightened with herbs.
Not all the staples are so great. An especially proud waiter bragged that the arepas served with many dishes are made with just corn and water, no salt. That’s a clue that Casa Vieja’s arepas, somewhat tough in texture anyway, are more or less flavorless. Douse them in one of the two provided salsas, dunk them in a soup or, given how huge portions can be, ignore them entirely. Likewise, some of the thinner steak cuts are prone to overcooking; carnivores should instead try the brisket in a simple yet striking “salsa criolla” of tomatoes, onions and spices ($14).
If anything can inspire a pilgrimage from Dallas up to Carrollton for Colombian food, though, it’s the specialty soups Casa Vieja serves on the first and last Sundays of the month. First Sundays mean a massive seafood stew, cazuela de mariscos ($20), loaded with more or less every edible sea creature. Coconut milk and a subtle, comforting mix of spices — dare I call it Cajun?— are the base of a hearty reddish broth brimming with shrimp, squid, lobster, clams and more. The cazuela is big enough for two, served with buttery rice, yucca and avocado, and good enough to plan a weekend around.
The last Sunday of the month means ajiaco ($14), as hearty a chicken soup as any in metro Dallas. Truthfully, it isn’t much more complicated than that, the chicken and a deeply savory, herbaceous broth joined by four or five varieties of potato and a piece of corncob. Like the cazuela de mariscos, ajiaco is a comfort-food standout, and an ideal winter warmer.
The servers at Casa Vieja have varying English-language skills, from bilingual fluency to only a couple words, but their hospitality is uniformly high. On one visit, a waiter sensed impressionable yanquís and dropped by our table after each plate came out, to explain the techniques and ingredients. Sometimes local musicians perform Colombian music; during shows, a $15 minimum charge applies. That might be a good time to order the uncommonly custardy tres leches cake, served with elegant raspberry drizzle ($4.25).
Casa Vieja is proud of its line of juices, made from Colombian-brand concentrates ($5 each). It might not be fresh-squeezed, but the juice is still good stuff. Try sweet-tart lulo, a citrusy tropical fruit, or get guanabana juice mixed with milk to create a sweet smoothie that doubles as a subtle dessert.
This restaurant has much to be proud of. They know it, to judge from the festive atmosphere, cheery waitstaff and walls brimming with maps, posters, flags and even hand-painted miniature buildings and scenes from Colombia. Casa Vieja is a relaxing community spot, and its regulars gather for mostly well-made tastes of home. On a few first and last Sundays each year, my friends and I join them. That deep, delicious seafood stew, coupled with some fried yucca and avocado, makes for a brunch that puts the rest of Dallas to shame.
Casa Vieja, 1927 E. Belt Line Road, Suite #152, Carrollton. casaviejarestaurant.net, 972-416-8172.