Casa Sanchez: The Little Casa That Should

Friday Dec. 3rd, 2010

The advantage of being a newcomer to these here parts is that each restaurant doorway, be it high-falootin’ or simple fare, is a threshold to discovery. Will this become a favorite new place? Will the tastes and smells and atmosphere amaze or disappoint? Expectation is tempered by discovery; opinion is shaped by experience rather than history or bias. The risk, of course, is that the opinion of this heretofore outsider might offend and provoke an escort to the edge of town in a sticky feather outfit. Who are you to tell US our beloved eatery does not pass muster? Point taken. Especially when one particular local eatery is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary. And so it is with careful consideration of community sensibilities that this evaluation of Casa Sanchez will proceed, in spite of a recent dinner visit that dissolved from ole to oy vey…

Part One
Informed by Casa Sanchez’ menu, the cute yellow house adorned with twinkle lights on S 9th has been in operation for a long time. It is possibly the oldest Mexican restaurant in Bozeman. This is “Grandma’s” house, and since generational integration is of utmost importance to this reviewer, the visit was attended by willingness to overlook flaws in favor of ethic. Family matters. A huge fan of Mexican fare, expectation trumped discovery at the onset of this review, with fond recollection of meals in restaurants from southern California to Texas and parts in-between. What a delight this would be! What a delight this was not.
In spite of admirable claims to lean toward homemade and fresh, food from Casa Sanchez’ kitchen seemed particularly dull to the taste. If truly authentic, one is left to wonder if salt is a consideration south of our border. Certainly spices are. Yet two separate meals eaten by two separate palates ended in one decisive pronouncement: bland. Flavor, por favor, flavor!

House nachos seemed summarily dispatched and thrown together: boring beans and a spattering of jalapenos topped with dry tortilla chips, it was necessary to dig for cheese and taste. The homemade house sauce packed some heat, but again: bland. In fairness, the friendly server indicated Casa Sanchez was popular for its enchiladas–but to BE fair, dinner choice was consistent with personal favorites enjoyed throughout the Southwest and elsewhere: chile rejenos and beef fajitas. Both were unremarkable.
In exchange for bottled hot sauce, Casa Sanchez’ menu offers several homemade sauce options. Habanero was chosen to ramp up the temperature and that’s about all it could claim. Again: flavor, por favor.
Surprisingly, dessert was the highlight of the meal, Casa Sanchez’ flan perhaps the most luscious marriage of milk and eggs this side of the Rio Grande. Add to dessert a creative drink menu and this place may serve well as an after-movie dessert date. Their Sangria hit good fruity notes without being saccharine or flat. Bebidos (beverages) included imports, micro-brews, sensible wines, pop (highlighting “real” Coke sans high fructose corn syrup), and hot drinks, including Mexican Coffee.

Though Casa Sanchez has a back deck which is popular during agreeable weather, inside you go until warmth returns. And it is the inside that diminishes appetite, unless “authentic” is intended to mean tired and worn. This place is old and it looks old. This in no way is meant to demean: it is possible the inside is intended to remain just as “Grandma” left it. If so, “Grandma” needed to call Merry Maids: the place was not clean. A cursory glance under the table revealed dire need for attention from a vacuum, as crumbled tortilla chips littered the floor. (A splattered and soiled Dirt Devil was readily on hand, stored alongside the men’s toilet. No. Really. Not the room–the actual toilet. Certainly in thirty years a cleaning closet could be found.) Dirt and debris could not be attributed to previous diners since the review took place at 5 PM on a day with no lunch service.

Sadly, ambiance was as bland as both meals. There is a particular charm associated with restaurant-in-a-house, yet both uncleanliness and blah surroundings prevail over charm at Casa Sanchez. This is vexing: the bright yellow exterior beckons and then—bam—uninspiring and unappetizing. The feeling is that someone ran out of interest or incentive, as if this little casa that could just doesn’t care anymore. With the exception of a string of chile lights along the backbar, the place lacks Mexican-themed décor, which would go a long way toward diner enjoyment.

Casa Sanchez’ price point is exceedingly reasonable considering their claim to cook from scratch and use fresh, local ingredients. Benefit added: from scratch and fresh usually precludes stale and MSG laden. That is a huge plus.

The temptation is to suspend rating until the folks at this generational gem step up their game. A visit to the Dollar Store for a few props, some paint and elbow grease, and a salt shaker could do wonders for this place. A strong one star for now—for Grandma.

Part Two
Thirty years is a long time for any restaurant, considering that many fail within the first three years of operation. After the initial visit a nagging sense of responsibility hung over this reviewer’s head like some sort of shadowy piñata. Could it have been an off night for the restaurant? For tastebuds? Was perception off the mark? A second visit was imperative—and this time for Casa Sanchez’ acclaimed enchiladas. Though the Pork Enchilada seemed a tad dry, other selections, including Traditional, Creamy Poblano, and Enchilada Verde were somewhat redemptive. Finally! The mouth feel and lingering sensation of spice that is  Mexican food. Service was consistenly friendly, yet, regrettably, cleanliness remained an issue: one week to the minute from the first visit revealed that the Dirt Devil had yet to be used under last week’s table. The exact broken tortilla chips covered the carpet. Mucho regrets, Casa Sanchez, but two stars at best.

Family owned since 1980, Casa Sanchez is located at 719 South 9th Avenue, Bozeman. It  is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Friday and dinner only on Saturday. It is closed Sunday and Monday. Casa Sanchez offers in-house dining and take-out.

Cynthia Yates cut her teeth in the restaurant business, ran a café in the middle of nowhere, hosted a popular wine group, and was active in the Slow Food movement. An author of several lifestyle books, she has been known to eat on a regular basis.