La Casita Del Sabor III, a new “House of Flavor” from the Olmino family, opened recently on South Main Street in Middletown. As the name indicates: the food is full of traditional and innovative flavor combinations, presented with color, freshness, and flourish. Quality ingredients and inventive juxtaposition of tastes are layered in a wide variety of Latin American dishes, with stylish presentation down to the smallest detail — such as beautiful orchids garnishing tall glasses of fresh fruit juices.
When Guatemalan chef and restaurateur Maria Olmino took over the original La Casita Del Sabor in 2011 in Hartford, she found herself cooking in a vibrant multi-ethnic Latin American community. Raised by her mother, Rosalia Izaguirre, to prepare Guatemalan traditional dishes — such as enchiladas, garnachas guatemalticas — she found that her customers in the Hartford area were of many different food traditions: Puerto Rican, Salvadoran, Honduran, Mexican, among others. They asked for favorites from their own home cuisines. Maria began experimenting.
Now expanded to three restaurants in the Hartford/Middletown area and managed by her three sons Erick Fernando, Cristian Olmino, and Mauricio Alejandro Olmino, Maria’s artful cooking playfully innovates along a common pulse of ingredients and flavors in Central American cuisines.
The Guatemalan-style soup, Sopa de Gallina, is a complete multi-platter of food, with side dishes making the herbed chicken broth satisfying for an entire meal in the fall and winter months. In a bowl of flavorful broth sit large chunks of stewed corn, squash, yucca, and chayote (or güisquil), along with a full quarter of a meat-on-bone chicken: it is a soup you eat with a knife and fork as well as a spoon. Rice, fresh avocado, cilantro, and onion are added into the bowl from the side.
The Tacos Dorados are a Honduran version of tacos — thick, flavorful hand-made corn tortillas, stuffed with a shredded chicken (or beef or pork) filling, rolled, and fried into cigar-size roll of an airy crispness. Offsetting this and mounded on top is a generous pile of fresh salsa-slaw: julienned cabbage, carrot, red pepper, tomato, pickled beet, and onion, mixed with crumbled queso fresco cheese. This really amounts to an entire fresh salad over the crispy redolently spiced fried rolls, a satisfying juxtaposition.
Chilaquiles is a breakfast dish of Mexican origin, made with hand-cut corn tortillas that are fried and then cooked into a warm tomato salsa. La Casita Del Sabor’s approach to this dish is lighter and fresher — the fried tortillas are served under a bed of lettuce, queso fresca cheese and sour cream. This layering happens on one end of the plate, while a grilled breakfast for champions holds down the other end: two over-easy eggs, slabs of garlicked grilled steak loaded over with fried onions and fresh, bright green or red chimichurri sauce. Maria’s arrangement of this dish also adds a saucer of not-your-ordinary beans — seasoned, tender pinto beans in a succulent broth that makes it worth the order alone.
The joy of the chilaquiles, as in many of La Casita’s menu, is in the juxtaposing, mixing, and matching of textures and tastes: fried onions with steak or eggs, chimichurri sauce with sour cream and queso fresco. Tortillas with beans. Cool avocado with hot chicken broth. Even simply the numerous ways that a key savory ingredient, onion, are presented across the three dishes, is cause for celebration: raw, fried, steamed, and integrated in flavorful salsas.
In fact, as Chef Maria notes, her innovations in working with different food traditions have shown up particularly in the salsas. For instance, in her version of the El Salvadoran dumplings called pupusas, instead of using the traditional salsa, she innovates a salsa with tomato, green pepper, red peppers, onion, and “seasonings from the house.” In tinkering with recipes, Maria creates her own unique take on each dish. In another innovation, in redesigning the Honduran street dish pollo con trajadas or “chicken with slices,” Maria fries slices of green banana rather than the traditional plantain. “Most customers really love the changes,” she said.
Other notable sections on the sizable Casita Del Sabor menu including a variety of Puerto Rican plantain based Mofongos, which Maria notes were one of her first experiments into different cuisines. The large selection of seafood offerings, including the lime-cooked seafood delicacy ceviche, are other key offerings.
Last but not least, the natural fruit juices are a special offering at La Casita Del Sabor. Mango, passion fruit, soursop, guava, papaya, and pineapple, along with horchata and tamarind agua frescas, are served in tall thick clear classes with flowers garnishing the top. Slightly thick and frosty, they are a refreshing counterpart to the hearty, generous servings of food. As one online customer recommended, “Run, don’t walk” to one of the locations to experience the Olmino family’s Houses of Flavor.
La Casita Del Sabor I
1405 Park Street, Hartford
La Casita Del Sabor II
1995 Park Street, Hartford
La Casita Del Sabor III
650 South Main Street, Middletown
Editor’s note: Chef and restaurateur Maria Olmino took over the original La Casita Del Sabor in 2011, not 2006. Also, the pupusas are El Salvadoran dumplings, not Honduran. This story has been updated.