Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tu Casa serves up Latin fare with lots of love

Tu Casa (30-10 Steinway, Astoria)

As our server, Pedro, presents each dish to the table, he finishes his description of the ingredients with "...and a lot of love."  To some, it may sound contrived, but after just a few moments at Tu Casa, the recently opened Peruvian & Spanish restaurant on Steinway, you can almost tangibly feel and taste the love.  Pedro is extremely proud of his service with the family that owns and operates Tu Casa, and father-son team William Alba Sr. & Jr. are equally enthusiastic and welcoming.  The restaurant's name, the less formal translation for "your house," is most convincingly fitting, as every staff member makes certain you feel at home.

The huggable William Alba, Jr. explains that it's a place where everyone should feel welcome, from any ethnicity, background, or walk of life.  Extremely popular at their original location in Kew Gardens, the family team decided to open a second restaurant in Astoria.  Although you may find several familiar dishes on the impressive menu that blends homestyle recipes from Spain, Central and South America, if you're game for trying something new, Pedro and the waitstaff will lovingly offer suggestions for some of the house favorites.  William, Sr. grew up in the Dominican Republic, while his son was raised in New York City.  The cuisine at Tu Casa is a festive blend of some traditional dishes from all of the cultures that were a part of both of their lives over the last few decades, as well as some passed down from even earlier generations.

I wholeheartedly recommend starting off with a pitcher of secret recipe house sangria, a rosé wine cocktail with a whisper of orange, and bite-size fruit bits just perfect for this classic Spanish spirit ($20 for the full pitcher, with half pitchers and single glasses available, as well).

Available with ground beef or chicken, the empanadas were absolutely delicious.  Crisp & flaky, the pulled chicken with peppers and onions were my favorite.  Though the simple flavors at Tu Casa need no masking whatsoever, a light drizzle of the jalapeno and onion hot sauce added just the right amount of kick to magnify the seasonings in these tasty fried turnovers.

A $3.99 cup of the sopa de pollo is a soup I will order every single time I need savory warmth this winter, a golden chicken broth with fresh vegetables and tender grains of white rice and juicy pulled pieces of chicken.

I am a devout lover of avocado, and the ensalada verde con aguacate was a remarkably fresh green salad with crisp cucumber discs, juicy tomato, peppery magenta radish slices, and the most tender, buttery sliced avocado I have tasted in years.  The garlic vinaigrette is served on the side, and almost not even needed at all.  A perfect palate cleanser between courses, and certainly enough salad to share with two or three people... or a light entree suitable for one ($6).

Perhaps it's a little Midwest engrained in me for life, but something about cheese and potatoes really satisfies my comfort cravings.  The papa a la huancaina was actually one of my favorite dishes of the entire meal, and an appetizer I will undoubtedly order again and again.  Tender slices of boiled potatoes are blanketed with a creamy Peruvian cheese sauce of yellow peppers, garlic, melted queso blanco, and evaporated milk.

The yellow peppers and garlic add a beautifully mild vibrance to the dish, with the milk & queso blanco blending for the most velvety cheese sauce I have ever enjoyed.  Even as the dish cooled to room temperature, the sauce remained smooth and creamy.  A simple, yet extremely satisfying starter or middle course.

Another knockout dish that simply floored us was the Jalea for $16.99. A mound of delicately breaded and lightly fried seafood, this plate is literally piled with a perfectly crispy golden mix of mussels, sea trout, prawns, calamari, crab, and crispy fried yucca -- almost like rich, crunch-coated, hearty french fries.  Topped with red onions, tomatoes, lime juice, and a sprinkling of cilantro, and served with a side of citrus wedges for extra zest to taste, this was the most wonderfully seasoned, tender sampling of fried seafood I have ever enjoyed.  If you love fried shellfish and trout, this will undoubtedly top any fisherman's platter ever to cross your placemat.

As we cleared the table to make room for the signature rotisserie chicken, a colorful assortment of side dishes made their way to the table.  These tostones were green plantains fried to an expert balance of crispy coating and tender, sweet insides.

The maduros, sweet plantains, reminded me of a latin version of caramelized bananas.  The tart and sweet plantains were soft and warm, with an outer coating that was so wonderfully crisped it almost tasted bruléed.

Classic arroz y frijoles are served up to wondrous execution, as well... the yellow rice is al dente and perfectly moist and flavorsome, accompanied with a pool of hearty red beans.  Carefully balancing complimentary portions of beans, rice, and chicken made for the perfect bite.

If yellow rice and red beans isn't your preferred accompaniment, then you should definitely try the arroz moro, white rice with black beans and tangy tomato.  Though I love both kinds of rice, this presentation was most delicious and my personal favorite.

The rotisserie chicken was presented to us, as Pedro asked our preferences for white or dark meat, and then proceeded to carve the bird, table side, to our personal likings.  Slathered with a basting of secret seasonings, the marinated chicken is then roasted to order.  Whispers of paprika, garlic, and cumin, along with the other secret components result in a deliciously crispy skin exploding with flavor.  Though the white meat was not quite as juicy as I prefer, with the addition of rice, beans, and the house green sauce, it was delicious.  The dark meat, usually not my favorite, was ridiculously tender and stood out in this presentation.  The moist chicken with crispy, seasoned skin, was devoured embarrassingly quickly.

Besides the sangria, wines, and other sodas, Tu Casa also offers an array of popular Latin soft drinks.  Inca Kola reminded me of a cross between cream soda and Mountain Dew.  The apple-flavored Postobon, although sweet, was quite refreshing and delicious.

Not only is the tres leches a family recipe, but William Alba, Jr.'s aunt actually bakes and prepares this dish herself to be served in the restaurant.

Although William, Jr.'s grandmother may still live in the Dominican Republic, it is her recipe for flan that is prepared at Tu Casa for this particularly rich and decadent version of a Spanish favorite.

While I will soon be returning to try the ceviche, steak, fried pork chops, and trout in white wine sauce, I think it's fair to say that we sampled more than enough to conclude that Tu Casa is not your typical rotisserie.  With owners and a staff that take extreme pride in their food and service, I hope that word spreads quickly about this new neighborhood gem.  Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, they also offer both delivery and catering.  An enormous back dining room can easily accommodate large groups, as well.  Lunch specials range from $6 to $9 and are served weekdays from 11AM to 5PM.

Tu Casa on Urbanspoon

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