[Editor's Note: We all know local music and dive bars go hand-in-hand. So in the interest of merging the two together on Heard Mentality, we bring you our nightlife column Dive, Dive, My Darling. Read this week as our bold reporter Matt Coker stumbles into the dive bar scene to find crazy stories, meet random weirdos and guzzle good booze.]
Which came first: Costa Mesa or Mi Casa? It seems as if the Mexican cantina has been on 17th Street forever. That also describes how long it's been since my last visit. On a recent afternoon, I ventured inside its Burro Room, where I found a crowd of presumed regulars darkening the stools in front of the medium-length bar, as well as people waiting to join the restaurant's lunch crowd at tables ringing the rectangular room.
If you're facing the bar, you'll be looking into a large-screen television hanging from the east-end wall. If your back is to the bar, three more big-screens hang from each of the three surrounding walls. Tall bar-lounge tables with stools run down the middle of the room. The west-end wall facing the bar has an extra-long padded booth seat that appears to hold about 30 people (or 15, if they are from Iowa). Small tables are positioned every few feet, with seats on the other side to allow smaller parties to portion off the long booth. Four-person tables make a U-shape to the entryway leading into the main restaurant.
Dividing these tables and the long booth area is my favorite attraction at any bar I have been to so far this century: a large warmer holding fresh tortilla chips. The adjacent salsa bar offers five kinds of salsa, including table, tropical and "wicked hot" varieties. Daily specials are revealed on a dry-erase surfboard over the bar, and hanging on walls throughout the very-clean joint are decorative sombreros and signs from beer and liquor distributors, whose products include Tecate, Corona, Negra Modello, Dobel Tequila and, as represented by the large framed portrait of the Most Interesting Man In the World, Dos Equis.
Those beers, Victoria, Pacifico and a domestic I probably put out of my mind are the only beers the Burro Room has on draft, which is my only knock, as I have evolved (devolved?) into a craft draft-beer snob. Bottled beers are also available. The selection of tequilas and hard liquors is also modest, but what the wizards behind the bar do with their resources is quite amazing.
I loves me some Bloody Marys, so I began with a Habanero Mary that, as you'd imagine, is extra spicy, just like my homemade version. These are made with habanero-infused El Jimador, Contreau, sweet and sour, and lime juice. With my taste buds properly singed, I must confess I actually preferred my refill: the Mi Casa Mary. Made with a blend of fresh tomato and citrus juices and garnished with a jalapeño-stuffed olive and celery, the Mi Casa Mary, like the mild table salsa here, brings out the sweet, delicious flavor of a perfectly ripened tomato, something I figured had been GMO'd out of the fruit.
The Partida Original Skinny Margarita is a Burro Room fave. While refreshing, the mix of Partida Blanco, organic agave nectar and lime juice was not nearly as tasty and satisfying as the cucumber jalapeño margarita. You'd expect the bold pepper to overpower the unpickled pickle flavor of the spa-water regular. But it's just the opposite: The cucumber is the star, and the jalapeño makes a brief cameo.
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These drinks prove a real cocktail connoisseur is making magic at the Burro Room bar, leaving me to wonder what took me so long to come in--and when I can return.
The Burro Room at Mi Casa, 296 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 645-7626; www.micasa1.com.