The busy Ellicott City intersection of highways 29 and 40 has its fair share of decent restaurants. They are attracted, no doubt, by the daily influx of shoppers and a healthy customer base in the surrounding residential areas. And it's not a bad stop if you need a rest from chain restaurants.
Across St. John's Lane from the Mars supermarket, Mi Casa has a tucked-away feel, probably because it doesn't front hyperactive Route 40. It's part of a relatively tiny strip of shops that includes a pizza place and, around the corner, a paint-your-own-pottery/coffee shop. If you're unfamiliar driving this turf, know that it helps to have a spotter looking for the restaurant's sign.
11:50 Inside, Mi Casa looks like it might have opened yesterday, when in fact it's been in operation for more than 13 years. Both bar and dining rooms are compact and casual. Arches, stucco and inlaid tiles lend a hacienda look to the interior. Plain, sturdy wood tables and chairs can be moved around to accommodate larger groups, and booths comfortably seat four adults.
11:56 Mi Casa has a family-owned-and-operated feel, our server could have been the mom or an aunt. She was competent, attentive, gracious and seemed genuinely concerned that we liked everything.
She set down chips and a fiery red salsa. Served in a corn-chip "bowl" — a miniature version of a taco salad shell — it's a daring starter. When was the last time you enjoyed serious heat in the house salsa served gratis to turn on your appetite?
While it won't blister your brain, Mi Casa's thin, red sauce doesn't play it safe. The house doles it out generously, too. If you pace yourself, there'll be enough left over to add a couple of tablespoons to your entree. Mi Casa's guacamole dip ($6.95) is a cool, creamy alternative with a deft balance of onion, garlic, tomato and spices.
12:10 Our entrees include a vegetable burrito ($9.95) and Mi Casa's Redwood enchilada ($10.95). Each is variation of the typical presentation. The vegetable burrito, for instance, looks a lot more like an enchilada, and the enchilada is stacked rather than rolled.
Sauteed mushrooms, green bell peppers, onions and tomatoes lighten up the burrito's flour tortilla, which was topped — like an enchilada — with a red sauce and cheddar jack cheese. Beans and rice are served on the side.
The Redwood approaches the enchilada with the club sandwich concept in mind. It stacks four thin corn tortillas with beef, chicken and pulled pork. No way you're going to roll this up. Like the burrito, it's topped with a red sauce and cheese. And in both, the kitchen places emphasis on fresh rather than spicy. Each entree was full-flavored with hearty tomato dominating, and not at all peppery hot, or even plain old peppery.
The black beans served with both our entrees and many others are a recent touch, according to our server. The tender whole beans in a medium light stock were a welcome addition, and turned out to be the star side dish during this visit. They convey earthiness without the dry character these beans sometimes show.
12:23 Besides our own, just a handful of tables are occupied. Salsa music plays so lightly you only notice during pauses in conversation. The room is neither noisy or eerily quiet. We comfortably talk in normal tones and increasingly enjoy Mi Casa's neighborhood vibe.
12:29 Most of the lunch entrees here will run from $10 to $13 — more than you're used to spending for enchiladas and burritos. But with that extra cost comes plenty, and the kitchen's claim on fresh ingredients held up through our meal.
12:33 No trouble turning a quick lunch here and no reason not to linger if you have the time. Mi Casa's found the right combination of menu, service and style for its base, balancing professional and family tones while occasionally risking a taste or temperature that sneaks just outside the average comfort zone.
Where: 3355 Saint John's Lane, Ellicott City
Contact: 410-480-2900, micasamd.com
Lunch hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Lunch entrees: $6.95-$13.95
Lunch buffet: $9.95
Food: THREE STARS
Service: THREE STARS
Atmosphere: THREE STARS
[Key: Outstanding: FOUR STARS; Good: THREE STARS; Fair or Uneven: TWO STARS; Poor: ONE STAR]