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Suddenly, a familiar face appeared among the tango dancers: Jason Pollen, professor and chairman of the fiber department at the Kansas City Art Institute. He later confessed to me that he's so passionate about the tango that he's out swiveling his hips three or four nights a week. Casa Grande is his regular Wednesday night hangout.
"We have tango dancing one night a week and flamenco dancing every Friday," our server informed us as she sat a plump vegetable quesadilla in front of us.
The brass band performs once a month, she added, or maybe not even that often. But entertainment is clearly an important element at Casa Grande. "This place is quite large, you see," she said, waving her arm for emphasis.
Yes, the dining room is grande, but the menu isn't all that fancy since Don Pepe's departure. The shelves of the built-in wine cabinet, which was stocked with various vintages during the Café Sevilla period, is now heavy on bottles of tequila. But a cold margarita is probably better than a glass of Rioja for washing down a Tex-Mex creation like Fajitas Rancheras, anyway.
The appetizers aren't sophisticated, either. I'm a fan of the punchy house salsa served with the chips, but I like cilantro. Those who loathe the pungent coriander leaves, beware! We saw a couple of alternatives to guacamole and bean dip, including four bacon-wrapped camarones Vallarta (shrimp that had spent a shade too long in the frying pan by the time they arrived at our table) and the ceviche, which several Pitch readers insist is as authentic as any they've had in Mexico.
But in true Midwestern fashion, the secret to Casa Grande's success may be its steaks. In addition to the carne asada, the restaurant offers four other variations on a Kansas City strip, and none of them costs more than $15. The tender 12-ounce steak Jalisco comes blanketed in a smooth, subtle chipotle sauce and sided with sautéed cactus. I savored every bite. Meanwhile, Franklin commented that his burrito-and-enchilada combination plate was just the way he liked it: not too spicy.
Casa Grande's owners understand something about Kansas Citians: We love Mexican food but we love familiar Mexican-American food even more. I have friends who fawn over the fajitas and frijoles at Casa Grande, but once you look past the pretty ambience, the food is comparable to most of its competition on the Boulevard. The exception here is the service. Casa Grande's owners need to focus on training their servers in the art of thinking ahead. On all four of my visits, I had to request small plates; it never seemed to occur to the servers that anyone might want to share appetizers.
On the rainy night I dined with my friend Diane, we nibbled on camarones al mojo de ajo, which I enjoyed, even if the sautéed shrimp in the garlic butter weren't much bigger than sea monkeys. Our server told us that the real specialty of the casa was the chile relleno. It turned out to be very light and good but not extraordinary.
Diane preferred sipping on a seductively potent Sangria and chatting, so I took up the slack, sampling a tempting tamale and surprisingly tender slices of carne asada, which I wrapped in soft corn tortillas and dipped into a heap of pico de gallo.
We waited for some dancers to start kicking up their legs, but that night we saw no such action. Instead, the highlight of the meal was a large, very satiny flan drenched in a dark-amber caramel sauce. With that, Diane finally discovered her appetite and lustily spooned up the custard. Once again, something unexpected had happened.