Reimagined Mexican cuisine at C Casa in Napa

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As Catherine Bergen takes me around her new C Casa restaurant at Oxbow Public Market in Napa, she explains she “always wanted to do a restaurant.”

It’s an interesting statement, considering she opened her first C Casa restaurant 12 years ago, just feet from where we stand today.

The original C Casa was a humble 400-square-foot taqueria tucked in a row of other Oxbow food hall purveyors. The new C Casa spans 5,000 square feet, including a patio overlooking the Napa River. It replaces the former Kitchen Door restaurant that relocated to Clay and Randolph streets next to Archer Hotel Napa.

I’ve always wondered why C Casa didn’t command a larger space, and more buzz. Bergen is a terrific talent, with great dedication to her craft and ingredients. She makes her tortillas by hand, using non-GMO white corn. Eggs are free-range from The Hen Pen Farms of Napa Valley, pork is all-natural Duroc, beef is Black Angus, Sonoma poultry is free-range, seafood is sustainable and bison is raised on a Colorado range.

Bergen also only uses non-GMO expeller pressed canola oil and local grapeseed oil, and all menu items are gluten-free, with many dishes that can be customized as vegan. Flavors are huge, with recipes elaborately layered in herbs, spices, handcrafted aioli and vinaigrettes.

Inside the new C Casa, you’ll find a casual order-at-the-counter taqueria and a full-service restaurant with a full bar. For the taqueria, you get your food to go and dine in the common seating areas of the marketplace, as you did at the old C Casa, or take it away.

As always, the classic, 6-inch open-faced tacos are divine, in rainbow arrays of grilled steak, prawns, salmon or mahi-mahi, carnitas, sweet potato with black bean or duck confit with spinach and oranges. Chicken is also extraordinary. The juicy rotisserie bird is rubbed with spices, hand-pulled and topped with a pile of mixed greens, lime-cumin vinaigrette, cotija cheese, avocado, Fresno peppers, pico de gallo, garlic and chipotle aiolis and fleur de sel ($9).

I constantly crave the beef taco, piled with succulent meat that’s been slow-braised with ancho and guajillo chilies, garlic, bay leaf, Mexican oregano and cumin, then shredded and crowned in mixed greens, lime-cumin vinaigrette, avocado, citrus-pickled onions, garlic aioli, lime crema, Fresno peppers, cilantro and fleur de sel ($11). It’s big, messy and mouthwatering.

If you’re looking for a more relaxing restaurant experience, settle into stylish white leather Mexican equipale chairs and take in the view of the baroque-tiled open kitchen with its rotisserie and wood-burning oven. I suggest immediately ordering a cocktail like the refreshing Casarita made with Herradura Silver tequila, Licor de Naranja, fresh squeezed Moro blood orange juice and lime juice, organic blue agave nectar and a blood orange wheel garnish ($14). Or try the potent Smoky Strawberry Negroni with strawberry-infused Banhez Espadin Mezcal, Campari, Carpano vermouth and a delightful touch of molé bitters ($16).

Start the meal with guacamole, chips and salsas ($19). It seems pricey, but the monster portion could feed four. The housemade chips are superbly light and crispy, the chunky guacamole is laced with Fresno peppers and the dish is dusted with cotija and charred corn salsa. On the side: tart avocado tomatillo and spicy chipotle tomatillo salsas.

C Casa has the fanciest mesquite grilled street corn I’ve ever had. The cobs are cut in three chunks and scattered with a colorful mix of cotija, spicy Tajin seasoning, earthy furikake, pico de gallo, lime zest and dollops of garlic aioli. The dish is arranged with lime slices and sports a dramatic husk-on cob end ($10).

Like many C Casa dishes, the Caesar salad is “reimagined” (one of Bergen’s favorite words). A thick wand of romaine hearts is grilled to give a lightly charred edge and draped in bright pink pickled onions, crispy capers, salty cotija cheese and tiny boquerones that I devour like candy. Dunk it all into creamy, spiced dressing ($11).

And, where else in Wine Country will you find a bison chile relleno? I’ve visited several bison ranches — the free-range animals typically enjoy great lives until their final day, and the resulting meat is beefy but slightly sweeter, richer and lower in calories and fat than beef. Here, the ground meat is tumbled with lots of melted Oaxacan cheese, stuffed into a mild poblano chile, then roasted and smothered in chipotle aioli, pico de gallo and ranchera sauce and served over cilantro lime cumin rice ($28).

For an even more decadent meal, go for the duck confit enchiladas ($29). The velvety poultry is a luxurious match for the gooey Oaxacan cheese, roasted tomatillo, heavenly chorizo/goat cheese, black beans and avocado salsa, lime crema and a spring salad. I like to go extra-big and add a side of white corn grits melded with plenty of Fontina cheese and charred corn salsa ($7).

To balance this heavier dish, a zero-proof Prickly Pear Spritzer hits the spot — the bright, crisp quaff mixes Fever Tree ginger beer, lime, mint and a bit of Prickly Pear syrup for a perfect palate cleanser ($9).

Interestingly, for someone who says she dreamed of someday having a restaurant, Bergen already has proved herself up to the challenge. Along with her original C Casa café in Napa, she opened C Casa in San Ramon three years ago and a second taqueria in Emeryville. To be sure, these spots are far more casual than her new Napa showpiece. But, for her first “real” restaurant, this is indeed a true, destination-worthy achievement.

Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at [email protected]

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