Cascal in Mountain View is Muy Bueno

Cascal on Urbanspoon

Hopping Cascal has a gorgeous interior and semi-Latin cuisine that draws big crowds

(This review originally appeared in South Bay Accent in April of 2004;  the menu has changed somewhat since this review, so some updates have been made to the beginning.)

The Spanish translation of “winner” in 2004 was clearly Cascal restaurant. When this hopping Latin-themed joint at the corner of Castro and California (hence the name) in downtown Mountain View opened, it made you think it was still 1999, before the economy tanked. Back then, if the dot-coms had as much business savvy as this bustling bodega displayed, maybe we would all still be using our stock portfolios to plan early retirement.

The market has had its vicissitudes since then but Cascal has continued to thrive. It incorporates many big-city dining trends but blends them into an appealing whole that was  fresh and different at the time. Small plates/tapas, Spanish-cuisine-and-then-some, rich desserts, unusual wine offerings, a sizzling bar scene – these are key elements of Cascal and are resonating with local residents, who are keeping the place packed. This winning theme was more recently repeated by the owner in Los Gatos at the new Cin-Cin Wine Bar, which includes quite a few tried-and-true recipes from its Spanish cousin in Mountain View.

Wisely broadening its ethnicity to cover cuisines of the whole Spanish-speaking world and beyond lets Cascal’s menus take a “greatest hits” approach. What customer would not find a personal favorite, given the inclusion of special cocktails, composed salads, seafood starters, no less than four versions of paella, several ceviches, a lengthy list of entrees and more than 35 tapas/small plates. The odd inclusion in the early days of Latin-themed pizzas and pasta dishes took things too far, but the kitchen has since come to it senses and sent these items packing.

(As of 2011,  the menu had been streamlined from its earlier incarnation. focusing on the most mainstream, frequently ordered items.  While this is unfortunate for adventurous foodies, Cascal’s many fans don’t seem to mind one bit.)

Cascal’s chefs have cherry-picked recipes while reinventing most of them, with the common elements being high-appeal ingredients and exciting, wake-up-your-mouth flavors. Patrons likely won’t quibble about authenticity when the food is as tasty as that served here. Case in point: Goat cheese “lollipops” in pumpkin-seed crust with dried fruit and fennel honey salsa. The odds of this item being served in a Madrid tapas bar are infinitesimal, but who cares?

This isn’t to say that every dish at Cascal takes liberties with tradition. A special “Spanish tapas sampler” includes such Spanish mainstays as Serrano ham, olives, fried almonds and potato and egg tortilla – a stick-to-your-ribs omelette. But the action end of the tapas list is new-world offerings like wild mushroom empanadas flavored with manchego cheese and truffle oil, or marinated, grilled swordfish with big-flavored romesco sauce, or shrimp and crab tostaditos in which tortillas wrap the shellfish, chipotle aioli, guacamole and shreds of romaine.

It would be ever so easy – not to mention, fun — to make a meal from tapas alone. So on your next visit, take this approach, beginning with one of the wonderful seafood items. Like the steamed mussels with saffron, wine, fennel, garlic and cream/tomato sauce or the fried, corn-crusted calamari with chipotle aioli. Next should come either the satisfying warm rabbit salad – a grilled, confit leg with four-bean salad in herbal vinaigrette — or reinvented, succulent Mexican sopes featuring chicken picadillo and Cuban roast pork with mole verde and fried plaintains.

With so many options, choosing can be difficult from an appealing menu that offers three kinds of ceviche alone. These include an Asian ahi tuna concoction with way-east-of-the-border flavors, a “Peruvian” version based on halibut with the interesting addition of fresh ginger, and a “Brazilian” iteration with a creative touch of pineapple to luscious scallop and the usual citruses and flavorings.

Choosing a main course will be one of two challenges during the evening. The other could be getting the attention of the limited-experience servers, some of whom are remarkably inept. But the array of irresistible dinner options almost makes up for the lags in service. Paella in either vegetarian, seafood or mixed-meat versions are appealing possibilities, but Cascal has some truly exciting entrees as well. There are some “slow-roasted” offerings available, like paprika-crusted salmon, Moroccan lamb and couscous, and marinated pork shoulder served with black beans and rice.

This is the right place to order wine by the glass in order to discover a host of new varieties from all over the world that pair terrifically with Cascal’s assertive food. And try to save a smidgen of room for dessert, which imparts a Latin note to popular items like warm chocolate cake, flan and piña colada cheesecake.

Whether for a full meal or a snack, Cascal is a fun place to visit. With its soaring ceiling, Moorish arches, jewel-tone colors and burnished wood floors, it’s a cross between Ali Baba and Versailles. But it’s decidedly Spanish in its noisy, festive atmosphere, evoking that country’s beloved pastime of eating and socializing until long after dark, fueled by copious amounts of wine. This Spanish export seems to be catching on.

Cascal, 400 Castro St., Mountain View, (650) 940-9500; http://www.cascalrestaurant.com

HOURS: Lunch daily, 11:30-2:30; dinner, Sunday-Thursday, 5-10, Friday-Saturday, 5-11. Reservations strongly recommended.

PRICES: Tapas, $6-23; larger platters, $11-26; desserts/cheese, $7-9.50.

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