Enjoy a south-of-the-border taste at the Pub at La Casita

It’s not exactly Jekyll and Hyde, but La Casita is an eating establishment with two personalities.

In the evening, La Casita is all about sumptuous dining, with their newly renovated décor serving as backdrop for a traditional, sit-down dinner experience. A Marco Island favorite for more than 20 years, the restaurant features a wide variety of Mexican specialties.

But, when the Island sun shines bright, another personality takes hold. During the day, the main dining room at La Casita is closed and action shifts next door to the Pub where lunch is served.

Menu items, such as fajitas, tequila lime shrimp salad, tilapia Vera Cruz and carne asada wraps and of course their “famous” baby back ribs, from La Casita are available at the Pub, but the setting is casual, relaxed and tropical. It is the perfect spot to wile away an hour, grab a bite and a libation or just chill out while your spouse runs up the credit card at the Shops of Marco.

That’s how Bob Schmit and Herbie Matta found themselves at the Pub.

“Our wives are next door shopping, so we came here,” says Schmit who jokes about how they like to watch the boats go by on the seascape painted on the wall behind the bar. “This is a super place — you won’t get any bad food here.”

Gentlemen to the core, he and his friend waited for the ladies to appear before ordering food, tiding themselves over with a couple of cold ones from the bar. When their other halves finally arrived, the couples decided, in what appears to be something of a pattern at the Pub, to indulge in a margarita before ordering lunch.

Along with the six varieties of beer the Pub keeps on tap, margaritas are the No. 1 drink order.

Great food at a reasonable price, explains co-owner Chuck Vreeland, is one key to a successful eatery. “I’m not banging people up here,” he declares. “We keep our prices friendly.”

Equally important, he adds, is atmosphere and camaraderie. This is a Vreeland fortè, greeting old friends down for the season, to create a place where you’d want to hang out.

He bought the establishment with partner Scott Cervin last fall, after managing it for the previous owner. Cervin is “more the numbers guy, and I’m more the hands-on guy,” explains Vreeland, “but we share everything. It was a nice way to take over.”

A veteran of the restaurant business, Vreeland previously owned several other venues in Collier County. Before that, he worked for 32 years at Bell Atlantic — now Verizon — but, he says, he’s not techno-savvy, doesn’t own a computer and is lucky if he can even answer his cell phone.

A number of the restaurant’s dishes, including the signature baby back ribs, were created by La Casita’s original owners. The recipe, says Vreeland, is a secret, even from the new owners. “The chef won’t let us see it,” he says.

Whatever the secret, the ribs, coated in a sweet brown sugar-based sauce, are tender and delicious. The only problem seems to be getting them from plate to mouth without the meat sliding right off the bone.

In addition to baby backs, other popular menu items include the blackened tilapia fish tacos and a variety of fajitas. These are available with chicken, pork, steak and shrimp, or as four-way fajitas, combining all of the above. If a lighter variety is more your style, enjoy a fajita salad, served with lettuce, pico de gallo, sour cream and guacamole in a tortilla bowl.

Adam Peters, owner of Adam Peters Construction of Marco, visited the Pub with Jackie Sussi and her daughter, Madison.

“It was excellent — very fresh,” says Sussi of her fish tacos. “We’ll come back.” And Peters enjoyed his fajitas, as well.

The “gringos” section of the menu offers choices for those who don’t choose to savor the flavor of Mexico. The Big Mouth burger runs eight ounces, and according to Joe Trilling, “It is hard to finish — and I’m a hamburger guy.” For the truly hungry, there is a 14 oz. New York strip steak served on a bed of grilled onions.

Still not full? Enjoy a selection of south-of-the-border desserts, including flan, sopapillas and fried ice cream, head north for turtle cheesecake, or meet in the middle for cheesecake chango, a slice of New York cheesecake wrapped in a flour tortilla and fried until golden brown.

Visit Wednesday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday evening, and you’ll hear the strains of live music coming from the dining room next door. But, for the daytime crowd, the big news is that now you don’t have to wait until evening to enjoy all the Mexican specialties for which La Casita has built a reputation. Come for lunch and do a little pub-crawling.

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