Five years ago, partners Keith Harmon, David Doyle and Mari Perez-Alers opened a tapas spot-slash-bookstore, Tres Gatos. Located in Jamaica Plain, the joint found itself in a hip neighborhood with a slowly-but-surely evolving restaurant scene. In late 2014, they rolled out their re-imagining of Centre Street Cafe, turning a longtime neighborhood brunch spot into a cozy Italian restaurant that retained its midday draw. And at the end of last week, the trio's latest venture — Mexican eatery Casa Verde — quietly started serving up tacos, tortas and more just a few doors away. It was one of our picks for the most highly anticipated restaurants of the year, and it completes a JP trifecta that has seen these restaurateurs bring Spanish, Italian and now Mexican cuisine to a buzzing little nook of Boston. Here's what you need to know before seeing for yourself.
711 Centre St., Jamaica Plain; 617-477-9977
Opening a Mexican restaurant was the idea ever since Tres Gatos debuted, says Harmon. He and Doyle also live in the neighborhood, and noticed a void for Italian and Mexican cuisine; Centre Street Cafe was designed to fill the first, and though the team hadn't planned on launching the Mexican restaurant in such close succession, the sudden availability of a perfect Centre Street space – the former home of Ghazal Fine Indian Cuisine — meant it was time to move fast.
The name Casa Verde was chosen for several reasons. The "greenhouse" reference suggests the group's focus on local, seasonal ingredients, a nod to the neighborhood's many community gardens and green spaces (like the Arnold Arboretum), and captures the team's overall goal. "We want every place to feel like a home," says Harmon. "For us, hospitality is really about building connections within a community." Sometimes those community connections actually come in handy. For example, Casa Verde is getting its epazote (an herb sometimes called "Mexican tea") from a longtime JP grower they first met as a regular at Tres Gatos.
Doyle, who has familial connections to Mexico, and Harmon, who fondly recalls the taco truck scene from his days living in Los Angeles, are inspired by the light, bright side of Mexican cuisine. Whereas many Americanized restaurants veer toward the dense and deep fried, Casa Verde spotlights the vibrant flavors of a few premium ingredients — they light up the palate without weighing down the gut. (Roughly three-quarters of the Casa Verde menu is actually vegetarian, says Harmon.) Seen here, the Baja shrimp tostada ($7), shrimp ceviche with avocado, onion, cilantro aioli and jalapeño.
The 58-seat restaurant interior was totally renovated. Walls were torn down, revealing original brick on one side and beadboard on the other; extra beadboard was re-purposed to create the chevron pattern that adorns the 12-seat, white oak-topped bar, where some cool clay light fixtures hang. And if some of the furniture looks familiar, it should: the crew brought over a few relics, like gnarled wooden tables and church pews, from James's Gate, a beloved Jamaica Plain tavern that closed last fall. The mix of new, re-purposed, and imported elements (like the handmade Mexican tiles near the kitchen) is somewhat representative of how Jamaica Plain has evolved over the years, says Harmon. "It's sort of like a microcosm of JP: taking old-school traditions and adding modern touches."
Before opening, the team sent chef Sean Callahan, an alum of nearby Ten Tables, to Mexico for a 15-day reconnaissance mission. As a result, the menu dabbles among different regions for its splay of snacks, chips, tacos, tortas and larger dishes — like chicken mole and carne asada. Seen here are two tacos: the chorizo ($4) of spiced ground pork, cilantro, crema, and salsa verde, and the shrimp a la diabla ($4), Guajillo chili marinated shrimp with cabbage curtido, crema and salsa verde. On the beverage side, the emphasis is on a cool craft beer selection and mixed drinks made with tequila-style liqueurs: like the "Blazing Saddles," seen here, a tincture of Del Meguey Crema de Mezcal, Thai chiles and sour.
A duo of desserts round out the experience. You'll find the honey-drizzled sopaipillas ($6) and the plantain split ($7), seen here: deep-fried plantains with vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce and toasted peanuts. And speaking of sweet finishes, the team says that Casa Verde is the last of their restaurant plans — at least for the foreseeable future. "People have asked us about building a restaurant empire," says Doyle. "But these are all highly individual, family-owned restaurants. We always want to make sure that we can be giving each of them the type of attention they deserve."