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BayouEats | An Artist’s Restaurant

By Nathan Coker
In Bayou Eats
May 2nd, 2023

photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK

Mario Mata is no stranger to finding inspiration at the crossroads of food preparation and art.

A restaurateur and cook with the soul of an artist may seem like polarizing interests, but for Mata, they feed off each other. The intimacy required of each is comparable as it demands the artist’s incorporation of all of the senses, and, when intersected, the creative expression at stake can produce masterful cuisine and dining experience. Mata’s newest venture, Casa Real, is the epitome of an artist at work, both in the kitchen and in the restaurant’s space. 

Of all his siblings, Mata was the only one born in Mexico. Though he arrived in the United States at an early age—raised in Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana—he decided to return to Mexico as a teenager. There, he completed his education, sharpened his Spanish skills, and soaked up the cultural palette of his home state, Tamaulipas. Located in the northeastern part of Mexico, it is bordered by the Gulf of Mexico to the east and Texas to the north. Characterized by its varied climates, vegetation, and rich agricultural economy, it was the perfect place to establish an appreciation for fresh ingredients.

Wanting to celebrate what it means to be Mexican, Mata opened Kahlo Tapas & Tequila in 2019. Unfortunately, the multicolored, tavern-style eatery closed during the pandemic, and Mata was left with the question many of us ruminated on during the time—what’s next? His answer came by way of former Kahlo customers who were taken by the distinctive flavor of his dishes. “We kept getting asked, even called, by people that would see Kahlo existed on the internet. So we did have a nice following,” he says. Adding, “Finally, we decided to do it again in a bigger space.” 

Wedged away from the thrum of the city, Casa Real is located off of U.S. Route 165 on a spacious verdant lot. “I wanted something more upscale,” says Mata, hence the restaurant’s name, which in English translates to “royal house.” Additionally, his interior design leans toward a more minimalist layout. A lengthy granite-top bar area is illuminated by industrial, cage pendant lights, and lined with wood barstools. Across from the bar, three high-top tables line a low dividing wall decorated with leafy vines spilling out of recycled tequila bottles. The rest of the space is the main dining area—neatly laid out wood tables, chairs, sangria-colored double booths, and the copper glow of glass pendant lights.

As he did with Kahlo Tapas & Tequila, Mata endeavored to create a mural that would evoke the spirit of the space.

“As far as the artwork, it’s very simple. I didn’t want to overcolor it. We tend to do that because Mexico is very colorful, our artwork is very colorful,” explains Mata. Wanting to explore a part of his culture that sinks into the solemn and spectral, he landed on one of his favorite Mexican holidays—Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). “Lately, everybody has an idea of it because it’s becoming more common, but there is always a misconception. Some people think it looks like voodoo or that we’re celebrating death. But it’s the other way around” says Mata. This seemingly macabre holiday, which coincides with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, is a celebration of life where the dearly departed are commemorated by way of altars laden with their favorite food and are believed to return on these days to reunite with living family and celebrate life together. “The purpose is not painting your face as a skeleton,” says Mata. Remembrance is at the heart of this festivity. For instance, Mata’s family honors his wife’s father by listening to his favorite songs, cooking his favorite meals, and even engaging in activities he enjoyed.

The mural that wraps around the restaurant walls draws from the spirit-filled holiday as well as the label of the restaurant’s house tequila, El Espolón. With the help of his wife, Mata emulated the calacas (figures of skeletons) and use of the rooster, a symbol of national pride, interweaving his visual narrative drawn in black Sharpie markers. “I took all that artwork and I imagined the story the way I wanted to lay it out on the wall,” he says. The story begins with a revolution led by a spear-clad rebel riding a massive rooster. Astounded skeletons run away, but further down the mural life remains undisturbed. Mariachis play at a bar, patrons drink and dance, and a marketplace is busied by women styled in long dresses. “The way I laid it out, it was gonna have movement,” he says. While using markers widens the room for error, Mata embraced the mistakes, explaining that it differentiates an art piece from the static nature of photographs or art prints. “I like to leave [mistakes] because it shows part of the work you did,” he adds. 

Like his art, there is a deep-seated authenticity to Mata’s cooking, though he tends to avoid using the word to describe his culinary talent. “There’s a lot of types of authentic Mexican food. It really depends on where you’re coming from,” he clarifies, adding, “So it’s really hard to just pinpoint what authentic is. To some people, a certain kind of sauce is authentic, and another one isn’t.” What Mata recognizes as authentic can be traced to the freshness of ingredients. “I started liking to cook as a teenager,” says Mata, who made it a habit to step into the kitchen and ask questions about the food being prepared. He enjoyed the puzzling task of recreating dishes he had tried in other restaurants, further developing his palate. The distinguishing features of northern Mexican cuisine tend to deal with “a lot of meats,” which he has transplanted in his “Grill Specialities” portion of the menu. From his Steak Fajita Real (grilled aged outside skirt, onions, and peppers served with Spanish rice, charro beans, cheese quesadilla, tortillas, and a selection of sauces) to the monstrous Parrillada (grilled outside skirt, chicken, shrimp, pork, carnitas, sausage, bone marrow, served with two cheese quesadillas, Spanish rice, beans, and sauces), his meat specialties are a clear breakaway from Tex-Mex approaches. 

The Casa Real menu aims to introduce customers to the tradition and culture of Mexico; in that way, each menu item represents the heart of Mata’s home cooking. Take the enchiladas on the menu. Usually prepared using a corn tortilla wrapped around a filling, Mata is changing things up and using a housemade crispy pastry: “It’s crunchy and soft in the middle.” Another innovative approach takes place before the meal. Instead of chips and salsa, complimentary handmade flour tortillas are served with two creamy butter spreads. “In Monterrey, where I was a teenager, flour tortilla is a big thing. We eat them all the time, and nobody buys them at the store because everyone is making them,” says Mata, who has brought that “freshness” to Casa Real. 

“We always say that the food is made by the salsa you put on it,” says Mata, adding, “so we are very specific about how good our salsa is supposed to be.” Essentially, salsa is either made with boiled or roasted vegetables. Mata’s go-to salsa consists of blended roasted tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, and garlic. While blenders are most commonly used for this process, Mata opts for the traditional use of the molcajete (mortar and pestle) which is often made out of volcanic rock. “There isn’t a better salsa than having a molcajete salsa,” declares Mata. 

Of course, no meal is complete at Casa Real without a refreshing specialty drink. Both the Organic Margarita and Organic Jalapeño Rita make use of fresh squeezed limes and oranges instead of a pre-made margarita mix. The spicy Rita adds a splash of homemade jalapeño syrup, further enlivening the already animated drink. Try the sweet-tart flavor of grapefruit soda in the refreshing Paloma (grapefruit soda spiked with tequila, salt, and lime) and Grapefruit Mojito. Also on the drink portion of the menu is an array of wine and coffee selections. 

Emboldened with the resounding depth that is Mexican culture, Casa Real is an inspired and sophisticated dining experience that will expand your tastebuds and understanding of the intricate flavors found in the multifaceted land on the other side of the Rio Grande.