REVIEW: Casa Robles brings tapas without borders to Roswell

Croquetas at Casa Robles burst with the flavors of serrano ham and manchego cheese. Courtesy of Randi Curling

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Croquetas at Casa Robles burst with the flavors of serrano ham and manchego cheese. Courtesy of Randi Curling

I recently read an article about why companies generally prefer to promote from within. Among other reasons, it’s more efficient than an outside hire, since an employee already is familiar with the company culture, and can jump right in, tackling new responsibilities.

That brought to mind Laura Orellana.

In her first gig as an executive chef, Orellana runs the kitchen at RO Hospitality’s Casa Robles. She’s been with the company since 2012, beginning as a prep cook at Table & Main, then moving up the ladder at Osteria Mattone.

At Casa Robles, RO Hospitality wanted to push the boundaries of tapas, with a menu that showcases traditional Iberian flavors, combined with Latin American culinary traditions and ingredients.

Orellana’s background is a perfect match. She was born and raised in El Salvador, and spent time in Guatemala, as well as five years in Spain, where she gained formal training in culinary school and the kind of education that comes from noshing on street food, such as fried dogfish in Seville.

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At Casa Robles, an order of pescaito frito (crispy fried cod balls), is presented in a paper cone, just like at a fried fish shop (freiduría) in Seville, Spain. Ligaya Figueras/ligaya.figueras@ajc.com

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

At Casa Robles, an order of pescaito frito (crispy fried cod balls), is presented in a paper cone, just like at a fried fish shop (freiduría) in Seville, Spain. Ligaya Figueras/ligaya.figueras@ajc.com

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Combined ShapeCaption
At Casa Robles, an order of pescaito frito (crispy fried cod balls), is presented in a paper cone, just like at a fried fish shop (freiduría) in Seville, Spain. Ligaya Figueras/ligaya.figueras@ajc.com

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

That fried fish (pescaito frito) is a don’t-miss dish at Casa Robles. Dogfish is difficult to source, so Orellana uses cod, another favorite in Iberian cookery, and turns it into delightful, crispy fried balls.

Her pulpo a la gallega veers from the traditional octopus-potato-sweet paprika-olive oil combination. The grilled octopus was fork tender, but neither a Catalan-style pesto, nor a garnish of oil-drenched croutons, enhanced the seafood.

However, if you want fork-tender, carrilleras (braised beef cheeks) fit the bill, though not the season. They came with carrots, potatoes and onions, like a hearty winter stew.

My bites of setas (mushrooms) and alcachofas (artichokes) were average, but yours will bring different flavors and cooking techniques, because the menu changed last week. They revamped those two dishes (among others), and removed some offerings, such as stuffed squid, stuffed calamari, plantain chips and roasted chicken with mojo sauce (having sampled each of those, I wouldn’t have recommended them).

They also added a few items, including a fish of the day served on fideua (a paella-type dish made with fried noodles instead of rice), as well as a hamburger.

I’m anxious to try that hamburguesa. Essentially a pupusa burger, it’s a culinary mashup, featuring a beef patty topped with a Salvadoran-style slaw, cheese from Oaxaca in Mexico and chile mayo, all sandwiched between corncakes.

Esquites (grilled Mexican street corn) is another recommended dish, but more interesting and less common is a Salvadoran-style tamal de pollo (chicken). For comparison, order it alongside a Mexican-style tamal de cerdo (pork). In the former, the corn flour, or masa, cooks in a seasoned tomato sauce. The latter is made with raw masa that then is steamed. Salvadorans wrap them in plantain leaves; Mexicans use corn husks. At Casa Robles, the chicken tamal was noticeably moister and more rounded in seasoning than its spicy Mexican counterpart.

Raciones (entree-portioned plates), tacos and pupusas form the other half of the menu. The only standouts on the $38 parrillada, a plate of mixed grilled meats, were one small link each of house-made Mexican and Salvadoran chorizo. I’d gladly pay a tapas price for slices of that Mexican pork chorizo — tinged orange from ancho and morita chile peppers — and the chorizo seasoned with cilantro, parsley, garlic and vinegar, like that made in Cojutepeque, a town whose sausages are the pride of El Salvador.

Skip the four (meat-only) tacos that feel out of place on this menu, and instead try one of the pupusas. It was important to Orellana to include El Salvador’s national dish of griddled corncakes on the menu. Both the cheese- and pork rind-filled versions were moist and oily. A topper of slaw cut through the grease.

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The maiz en texturas dessert at Casa Robles celebrates corn through different textures: moist cake, smooth ice cream, crunchy caramel popcorn and a warm sauce. Courtesy of Andrew Thomas Lee

Credit: Andrew Thomas Lee

The maiz en texturas dessert at Casa Robles celebrates corn through different textures: moist cake, smooth  ice cream, crunchy caramel popcorn and a warm sauce. Courtesy of Andrew Thomas Lee

Credit: Andrew Thomas Lee

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The maiz en texturas dessert at Casa Robles celebrates corn through different textures: moist cake, smooth ice cream, crunchy caramel popcorn and a warm sauce. Courtesy of Andrew Thomas Lee

Credit: Andrew Thomas Lee

Credit: Andrew Thomas Lee

Still, Orellana best honors her roots with a dessert that recognizes the centrality of corn on a Salvadoran table. Maiz en texturas celebrates corn’s transformative textures with a moist cake, smooth ice cream, crunchy caramel popcorn and a warm sauce. The latter is inspired by Orellana’s memories of sipping atole de elote, like an American kid drinks hot chocolate.

However, in prioritizing texture and flavor, the mix of temperatures is forgotten, and the presentation quickly turns messy.

That’s not the only dish that seems to focus so much on one aspect (an ingredient, a texture, a technique, a riff on a familiar dish) that others suffer. In stimulating one or two of the senses, others are left wanting.

Aside from what the kitchen brings to Casa Robles, the bar provides appropriate cocktails, wines and beers, with house-made agua fresca for those who abstain. And, a casual ambiance is built around comfortable, contemporary furnishings; a bold color palette of black, red and blue; and a lively Latin playlist.

As friendly and efficient as the front of the house is, they could do a better job extolling the unique elements of the menu. It’s moments like a server selling me on that corn dessert — with his enthusiasm for Orellana’s distinctive corn ice cream recipe (“We even had to call Italy!”) — that can keep us from mistaking Casa Robles for just another tapas restaurant.

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Iberian and Latin American flavors are showcased by the menu at Casa Robles, which predominantly is tapas. Courtesy of Andrew Thomas Lee

Credit: Andrew Thomas Lee

Iberian and Latin American flavors are showcased by the menu at Casa Robles, which predominantly is tapas. Courtesy of Andrew Thomas Lee

Credit: Andrew Thomas Lee

Combined ShapeCaption
Iberian and Latin American flavors are showcased by the menu at Casa Robles, which predominantly is tapas. Courtesy of Andrew Thomas Lee

Credit: Andrew Thomas Lee

Credit: Andrew Thomas Lee

CASA ROBLES

Food: tapas

Service: welcoming and efficient

Best dishes: Mexican street corn, pork tamale, chicken and chickpea tamale, croquettes, fried fish, grilled octopus, desserts — especially the “study” in corn textures and the caramel flan

Vegetarian selections: cheese salad, bread with tomato, Mexican street corn, roasted vegetable plate, artichokes, mushrooms, fried potatoes, cheese pupusas

Alcohol: full bar

Price range: $$$

Credit cards: all major cards accepted

Hours: 5-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 4-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays

Children: adventurous eaters

Parking: free parking lot

MARTA station: none

Reservations: accepted

Wheelchair access: yes

Noise level: average

Outdoor dining: covered patio with overhead fans

Takeout: in-person ordering only

Address, phone: 48 Oak St., Roswell. 678-226-9600

Website: casaroblesroswell.com

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