For quite a few uncomplicated years, the perennial question, “What’s your favorite restaurant?” was blissfully easy to answer: I’d had crushes on various establishments before, but our college town’s worker-owned and -operated Casa Nueva was my first true love.
Casa championed local, seasonal produce before it was trendy to do so, and the resulting hearty, high-quality Mexican-style fare has developed something of a cult following among townies and students alike. On a recent whirlwind trip to Ohio, I cajoled two friends into joining me there for breakfast to see if the goods still held up; happily, the food was as great as I’d remembered.
Another thing that hasn’t changed? The legendarily slow service. (Giving a bunch of hippies the run of the place might have something to do with that.) Normally, I get antsy if I have to wait too long for my meal, but this is one of the only places where I don’t mind. The bloody Marys undoubtedly help. These days, there are all kinds of fancy-pants, house-infused vodka options—I had a sip of my friend’s gazpacho bloody, and it was really, really tasty—but at $3.50, the house version has a permanent place in my all-time top-ten.
My standard brunch choice is a bit unorthodox, but then again, I’ve always enjoyed starting my day with non-breakfast options. Case in point, the Hills Deluxe: black beans and jasmine rice, topped with two salsas (this time around, I went with the black-bean and habanero varieties) and shredded lettuce, carrots, scallions, and cabbage, and served with a large flour tortilla. Simple, cheap, and delicious. When I was in school, I’d opt for the dish sans lettuce; on this visit, I relished the green stuff. I guess that means I’m a grownup now?
My friends’ breakfasts were more traditional, but no less satisfying. Above, the Deluxe (eggs with onions, peppers, and Monterey Jack cheese, cajun-spiced homefries and an English muffin); below, an omelet with wheat toast and those same potatoes. Shockingly, I was too busy scarfing down my beans and rice to ask for tastes, but, as both plates were cleaned in record time, I’d guess it’s safe to say they were satisfied.
Yet another thing that hasn’t changed? The prices. My friend kindly grabbed the check and offered to treat; upon seeing the unexpectedly low total, he proceeded to examine the bill to make sure nothing had been left off—a Twilight Zone-esque switch from the normal dining experience, in which you’re checking to make sure nothing has been added.
I’m such a Casa junkie that I returned a couple of hours later with another group of friends for late-afternoon snacks (above, the queso with chiles) and drinks. I was still full from breakfast, but it didn’t matter—I would’ve eaten ten meals there if it were physically possible. It’s not often that I’m in Athens (and my pleas for a Brooklyn outpost have fallen on deaf ears), so I have to get my fix while I can. There are benefits to living in New York, but being separated from my first true love isn’t one of them.
Casa Nueva Restaurant
4 West State Street