Something magnificent happened when I tasted the first sporkful of the rice and beans bowl from La Casita, a new Caribbean-style restaurant on the traffic circle in Kittery. The flavors came together like a symphony, with moist chicken dripping with tangy marinade, fruity sauces and a hearty mix of beans, rice and a fresh Latin slaw.
La Casita looks like it should be an ice-cream shop or some other summer sundry type of place. Prior to La Casita, this location was a barbecue place and a hot dog stand.
Think of it as a food truck without wheels, specializing in cuisine with origins in Puerto Rico, Cuba and similar Caribbean locales. It’s tiny, with enough space for a customer or two at the counter and a micro kitchen tucked behind a blackboard menu. There’s no inside seating and just a few picnic tables on the grounds outside. Cars and trucks whiz by on the traffic circle, one after another and just a few feet from the parking lot.
There’s not much ambiance. The draw is the food.
I stopped in a few minutes before noon on a weekday. At the time I arrived, I was the only diner. By the time I left 15 or 20 minutes later, the place was full, with five cars in the lot and people waiting to step inside to order. During the two months La Casita has been open, word has spread about its taste and value.
I was tempted by the Cubano sandwich, a pork and ham sandwich served with mustard and Swiss cheese. It’s a specialty of La Casita chef Gaby Velez, who grew up in Puerto Rico.
But the rice and bean bowls are the heart and soul of La Casita. Creating the bowl is a custom four-step process that involves a choice of protein, rice, beans and one of six sauces. The protein choices are pork, beef, chicken, Cuban picadillo, mahi-mahi, tofu and tuna.
I opted for the chicken ($10.50) with yellow rice, black beans and guava barbecue sauce. I loved the chicken. The chunks were huge, very tender and set with a sweet, rich and deep marinade. The rice and beans were perfect – not too heavy and steamy hot – and the sauce was fruity and fresh.
The most expensive item on the menu is the tuna bowl, at $14.50.
There’s also a steak sandwich with avacado, a barbecue pork sandwich and a gaucho burger, with cheese, chimichurri, potato sticks and tomato aioli. Sides include sweet potato fries, rice and Latin slaw, along with many other choices.
The service was exceptionally friendly and quick. I received my order in less than five minutes and spent the whole time talking with the cook, who was working behind the chalkboard. He told me about the food and the short history of the place.
My only complaints: All the food is prepared to go, and my order was served in a plastic bowl with a plastic spork. In this day and age, there are good alternatives to plastic. And sitting at a picnic table next to traffic isn’t very appealing, regardless of the weather.
Neither issue will stop me from going back and trying another rice and bean bowl, or perhaps the Cubano. The traffic circle is ringed with other food options – a fast-food place, a bagel shop and a convenience store with a food counter – but with food this fresh and good at La Casita, there’s really no choice.
WHERE: 181 State Road, Kittery. 703-2653, lacasitaonthecircle.com
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday
WAIT: Less than five minutes
PARKING: Parking lot with plenty of room