PEORIA — If you think it's hard to find surprising delights amid Peoria's Mexican restaurants, head to Casa Amigos Mexican Bar & Grill.

Order the molcajete. It's a standout — both in terms of a departure from typical Mexican fare as well as in its distinct and impressive flavor. Trust me.

A "molcajete" is actually a stone mortar used to grind and serve Mexican recipes. But, as at the recently opened Casa Amigos, it can also refer to a dish ($13) that can be best described as a south-of-the-border gumbo or stew. In this case, you can choose grilled chicken, steak or carnitas (pork), which gets mixed with red or green sauce, melted cheese, avocado, onions and other delights. The savory combination delights the taste buds, bouncing here and there while carrying an underlying zing.

Mind you, despite a sometimes-surprising menu, Casa Amigos' surroundings are typical — tile floors, colorful murals, Mexican music — but the vibe is bright and cheerful. Plus, the service was quick and attentive.

As my wife, a guest and I discovered on a recent dinner visit, the menu includes dozens and dozens of items, most of which you'll recognize. Still, even then the preparation excels. To wit, my carnitas (slow-roasted pork, $12) was lightly spiced and mostly succulent (though with a few dry spots). On the side came rice and beans, which were solid.

Still, there are multiple offerings you won't find everywhere. The camaron a la diabla ($14) featured shrimp in a lightly spicy red sauce, plus rice, lettuce, tomato and sour cream. The grilled carrots and broccoli were tasty as well.

You can even find surprises among the appetizers. The queso fundido (melted cheese, $6.50) involved chihuahua cheese dotted with poblano pepper, mushrooms and chorizo; it's served with flour tortillas, though we used the dip with the complementary nacho chips. Also, the guacamole ($3) is not only smooth and creamy, but topped with a fresh dollop of pico de gallo.

To round out the meal, we sampled the sopapillas ($4), fried tortillas flavored with cinnamon, sugar and honey, served alongside vanilla ice cream. Delightful.

In Peoria, Mexican fare can seem mundane. Not anymore, thanks to Casa Amigos.

PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at, and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on