Jamaica Plain restaurateurs Keith Harmon, David Doyle and Mari Perez-Alers have got something good going on. In 2011, they opened Tres Gatos, a Spanish restaurant with a record-and-book shop in the back. In 2014, they took over the Centre Street Cafe a half-mile down the street and reinvented it as a modern Italian restaurant. Their new venture, Casa Verde, is one short block farther down Centre, but conceptually stands apart. Their first two restaurants are polished, handsome spaces serving slightly creative interpretations of their respective cuisines, with ambience and prices that feel fancy by JP standards. With a big, TV-equipped bar dominating a narrow, dimly lit room walled in brick and beadboard, Casa Verde feels more like a neighborhood tavern. As it happens, this tavern has a rather fine bar program for its limited license, and the Mexican food by executive chef Sean Callahan is affordable and really, really good.
At almost any JP bar, a reasonably geeky beer list is de rigueur. Beer director Bailey Lyon answers that call with 18 drafts ($6-$9) and eight in cans or bottles ($4-$10). Need food-friendly refreshment? There are tallboys of Tecate and Narragansett ($4) and the slightly richer Mexican-style lager Banded Horn Wicked Bueno ($7) on tap. Been obsessing over sour ales? Get your pucker on with Vermont’s Hermit Thrush Brewery Brattlebeer ($8). Want a local cider? Hoppy IPA? Chocolate milk stout? Check, check and check. Wine lovers have a nice dozen-plus modest New World bottles to choose from at $30-$68 (most under $40), all offered by the glass ($8-$13).
Cocktails dance cleverly around the beer/wine/cordial license. The house margarita, here called the Gunsmoke ($9), brilliantly subs the smoky/sweet liqueur crema de mezcal for verboten tequila, resulting in easily the best cordial-based margarita I’ve ever tasted. The specialty list smartly favors long drinks like a delicious, heat-packing Red Michelada ($6), which seasons lager with flecks of tomato, ghost pepper and smoked salt, while the sweetness and alcohol of yellow and green Chartreuses and King’s Ginger liqueur find ballast with Mexican lager in the Yellow Ribbon ($9). That’s called turning a handicap into an asset.
The menu skips through a few regions of Mexico, building on simple, high-quality bases and relying on vibrant salsas, herb-enhanced cremas and intricate moles to provide depth of flavor. Excellent tortilla chips from Tortilleria Mi Niña are the basis of the chips & salsa trio ($8), featuring assertively fresh, vivid renditions of salsa roja, salsa verde and creamy, peanuty/hot cacahuate y chile. Those same chips accompany a huge bowl of guacamole ($8) that will surprise diners accustomed to bland, chunky avocado dips: Callahan’s version is pureed smooth and bracingly acidic from tomatillos. The tlacoyo ($7) might remind you of a pupusa: It’s a thick masa flatbread filled with beans, shrimp or chorizo, griddled and topped with a verdant crown of salsa verde, raw onions, a dusting of cotija and a squiggle of crema. Atop a crisp tortilla, the Baja shrimp tostada ($7) piles a generous pyramid of shrimp ceviche, avocado and luscious, cilantro-flecked aioli.
The lineup of abundantly filled tacos is rife with unusual options. Lamb al pastor ($5) features fantastic spit-roasted lamb and charred pineapple. Chipotle cauliflower ($4) packs a wallop for a veggie taco with its charred cauliflower, salsa verde and fiery/tart adobo-marinated chipotle peppers. The more common spicy-pork chorizo ($4) with crema and salsa verde is splendidly greasy. But the knockout might be chili-marinated fried smelts ($4) with red onion escabeche and salsa roja, a Baja fish taco by way of Southern Italy. (Bonus: Taco prices drop to $2 on the limited late-night menu from 10 pm till midnight.) You can round out a plate of these with starchy sides in big portions, like smoothly pureed refried beans ($3), saffron-tinged arroz huerfano ($4) dotted with almonds and bell peppers, and a messy, delectable elote ($7), grilled corn doused with copious cotija, dried chili and pastel-green cilantro aioli.
Platos provide a hefty meal on a plate that includes avocado, rice, beans and a pair of tortillas. Here, the showstopper is another dish evocative of Europe: bacalao a la Vizcaina ($15), a mound of mild, tender salt cod chunks braised in tomatoes with onions, olives and capers and garnished with radishes, an exquisitely briny, piquant echo of Basque cuisine. From two desserts, we chose sopapillas ($6), flattened cones of deep-fried puff pastry stickily glazed with honey, cinnamon and sugar for a simple, sweet finish.
Service at the 12-seat bar and in the 46-seat dining room is youthful, casual, friendly and hustling, befitting the homey, corner-bar feel of the joint. In an effort to ameliorate the wage disadvantage that kitchen staff suffers vs. tipped workers, management tacks on a 3 percent “hospitality fee” to every check. Ultimately, Casa Verde stands as testament to the range of its owners, showing they can bull’s-eye a laid-back, bar-centric concept as winningly as their posher efforts. One wonders hopefully what their next neighborhood act might be.
-Baja shrimp tostada
-Lamb al pastor taco
-Chili-marinated smelt taco
-Bacalao a la Vizcaina
Hours: Mon.-Sun., 5 pm-midnight, (limited menu 10 pm-midnight) Reservations: No Parking: Street spaces and backlot Liquor: Beer, wine and cordials
Casa Verde 711 Centre St., Boston (617-477-9977) casaverdejp.com