705 W. Market St. holds a special memory for me. As a student at East Tennessee State University, the building was known as The Cottage, a frequent hangout for my fraternity brothers and me. I last reviewed it in these pages over six years ago. The place had hardly changed since frat brothers Squelch, Wrench and Piglet taught this pledge how to chug a pitcher of beer and remain upright.
Sadly, the six years since my last review hadn’t been kind to 705.
Ownership changes and tenants whose business practice and property upkeep were casual at best had left 705 looking as if it wanted to lean up against something.
Then Jose Orellana Romero took a considered look at 705 and didn’t see collapse, he saw opportunity.
With determination and hard work, Romero and his team have created a brand new business for Johnson City at 705 W. Market St.
The business is a restaurant named La Casa Vieja, in English, “The Old House.”
Casa Vieja can be found on West Market Street near its junction with Hillcrest Drive. There is plenty of parking both in front and behind the building. Casa Vieja still maintains a side door that opens onto a re-purposed patio, and the front door is where it has always been.
Casa Vieja’s seating arrangement will be familiar to former Cottage patrons. There is a long counter that runs the length of the lower dining room with chairs facing it. Across from the bar, still on the lower level are several booths, comfortable and semi-private. Up two steps brings you to the upper dining area near the front door. On your left is a “snug” for folks who want a bit more privacy than that offered on the lower level. On the right are two connected dining areas with seating for about 30 or so. Restrooms are nearby and easily accessible. All of the restaurant’s interior décor celebrates the seven states of Central America: Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.
Casa Vieja is not your typical taqueria-style restaurant. Though most Latin cuisine served in the United States is derived from the various regional cuisines of Mexico-proper, the seven nations of Central America each have a cuisine standard that differs for each country much as each country’s terrain and agriculture differs from the other.
This means that the “parts list” of ingredients and style of cooking making up what is on your plate will be more diverse and probably less familiar to you than typical Mexican fare.
A big help for us novices is a server as friendly and knowledgeable about Casa Vieja’s menu as our new friend Armando was. His fellow server Lexi was also friendly and helpful as well.
About those ingredients:
First, fewer Honduran dishes use beans and chilies. Second, think tropical. Palm, plantain and yucca replace corn and wheat as the meal’s starch source.
Drinks are mostly fruit-derived and, like all countries south of Texas and the Rio Grande River, Coca Cola is made with cane sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup, and comes in returnable glass bottles.
Third, since all seven countries have a coastline, seafood can be used as a protein source rather than beef or pork.
As stated earlier, Casa Vieja’s emphasis is on Honduran cuisine, which is what my dining partner and I chose on our first foray.
My choice was Baleadas Especiales ($6.99) Casa Vieja’s version of the quesadilla.
My dining partner opted for the house specialty, Pollo con Tajadas ($13.99), a popular chicken entrée recommended to her by our server Armando.
How it tastes
My Baleadas Especiales order had not one, but two dinner-sized flour tortillas, each lined with a dark red mole (bean paste) and then topped with chorizo sausage, shredded and marinated beef, a light queso fresca semi-soft cheese, with some queso duro hard cheese crumbles (think coarsely shredded aged parmesan here) scattered here and there. Quite tasty, with enough left over for me to take home in a “doggie-box.” (Update: Baleadas Especiales is even tastier for lunch the next day.)
My dining partner was very pleased with her Pollo con Tajadas entrée. Translated as “chicken with green plantain,” you start with a roasted thigh and drumstick of chicken that has been rubbed with spices such as cumin and oregano and served with a Honduran recipe for slaw, some freshly chopped jalapeno peppers, some lightly shredded creamy textured queso, pickled red onion slices and carrot, served with thinly-sliced and baked green plantain. The chicken was cooked through, spicy and made for a quite savory mouthful. The chopped jalapenos, together with the pickled red onion and carrot slices made a nicely-astringent relish that leaves a nice, residual heat at the back of the throat; a pleasant palate cleanser.
The bottom line
I am going to see if the local posadas (“Latin markets” for us Anglos) have the thin-sliced and baked green plantain tajadas similar to those used at Casa Viejas for sale by the bag. The ones with my dining partner’s meal tasted better than any of the best potato chips currently on offer at local supermarkets.
Will my dining partner and I be making a return trip to La Casa Vieja, and bringing our friends along?