French Quarter: 620 Conti.
When Castillo’s opened, Mexican food was not much eaten around New Orleans. Only adventuresome gourmets, transplants from Texas and the Southwest, and Latinos gave it a second thought. For most Orleanians, the thought of Mexican food was inextricably bound to the image of hot tamales–specifically the very American kind sold by Manuel’s and other streetcorner vendors.
The few Mexican restaurants did little to encourage growth in their market. The discovery by Chi-Chi’s and its ilk that Mexican food could be pasteurized for American tastes was still in the future.
Nevertheless, a few good Mexican places could be found if you looked for them. The best was Castillo’s. Its cooking was ahead of its time then. So was its very existence.
Carlos Castillo was a unique character. He was knowledgeable on many matters, and maintained a small library of books on many abstruse topics next to his table in the dining room. He could talk for a long time on the history of Mexico and its cuisine. And give you full dogma about how authentic Mexican food needs to be cooked, down to the tiniest details.
The premises were distinctive. An 1820s building on the corner of Conti and Exchange Alley had large, windowed doors lining two walls. If it had been legal back then, it would have created a great sidewalk dining scene under its balcony and on the alley. When I first went there in the 1970s, it already seemed much in need of a renovation. No such renovation ever came.
None of the regular customers seemed to care. Almost all of them either lived or worked in the French Quarter. A place like Castillo’s was a hard sell to tourists, who come to town for Creole cooking and seafood.
The menu didn’t change much over the twenty-five year span during which I dined at Castillo’s. That menu was unintentionally prophetic. Many of the ingredients, dishes, and styles are now hot stuff in the nouvelle restaurants of our day. The first place I ever saw the word “cilantro” was on Castillo’s menu. He also used an ingredient called “culantro,” and said it was an ingredient so important to the house soup that he grew it himself. “Culantro” is not a typo for “cilantro,” he went on, but an entirely different herb.
The soup involved was caldo xochil–a light chicken broth with a very slight spiciness and a hard-ton-pin-down herbaceousness. Must have been the culantro.
Most of the menu would be familiar now. But even the most prosaic dishes were prepared distinctively, with a good deal more work done in the background than is typical. The enchiladas de res, for example, sounds like plain old beef enchiladas. Their filling, however, consisted of a beguilingly seasoned ground beef that tasted much different from standard taco meat. The sauce was a fresh-tasting ranchero sauce, redolent of tomatoes and peppers.
Castillo was very precise about the provenance of his cuisine. The description of the enchiladas Texanas, for instance, all but apologizes for the fact that they’re covered with chili con carne. Which, Castillo wants you to know, is not Mexican but some sort of Texas stuff. Other dishes were attributed to the northern provinces, the Maya, the Aztecs, the Yucatan, or the coast.
The great dish at Castillo’s is still a rarity around New Orleans. Molé poblano, made from scratch from cocoa, peppers, peanuts, sesame, oil, and herbs, accompanied roast chicken or cheese enchiladas, and lifted both to an astonishing goodness.
Castillo’s chilmolé de puerco involved another unique, jet black sauce. The peppers in it were roasted to that color before entering the saucepan. The resulting sauce was spicy with an edge of caramelized pepper fruit. “That’s strictly a Mayan dish,” Castillo told me.
Another good dish from the Yucatan was pollo pibil. It included achiote (to give that appealing deep-orange color) and orange peel in the sauce. It was served stew-style over rice. The only other place I ever found anything like it was in Cozumel.
Even the eggs were worth ordering. Huevos rancheros weren’t scrambled but shirred (baked in a casserole) before being topped with ranchera sauce.
Castillo’s downfalls were inconsistency and terrible service. Although its fans said that both of these complaints were overreactions to the authentic Mexican lifestyle, that didn’t help business. Still, even with sparse crowds, Carlos castilo kept it going until his health declined. For awhile, his son operated a second Castillo’s in–of all places–the building where Restaurant August is now.
I suspect that if Castillo’s were still around, even with the same menu, it would still be on the cutting edge by New Orleans standards. And it would still be a contender for best Mexican restaurant in town.