Sunday, May 13, 2012

Quieres Comer?

As published in Ojai Quarterly magazine, Winter 2012.

Photo by Bill Snider
Authentic homemade tomatillo salsa always takes me right back to my teenage years, to my hometown of Borrego Springs, where half of my graduating class of 25 was Hispanic. After geometry class, my girlfriend and I would go to her house to study. Walking through the front door, I would always smell a pot of beans simmering on the stove and homemade flour tortillas toasting on a hot pan.
I can still hear her mother, “Mija, quieres comer?” Before I could answer, a plate would appear. Homework would have to wait.
Back then, the gringa in me could only handle a drop or two of salsa. Now, a spoonful provides just enough heat, while allowing me to savor whatever enticing flavors await underneath. I had developed a bad habit of visiting our local taco shops and bringing home extra salsa cups filled with my favorite – the beautiful and bright green salsa made with tomatillos, jalapeños, cilantro and garlic – hoarding enough to last the rest of the week so I could slather it on my scrambled eggs in the morning, my steak in the evening and maybe even my mashed potatoes. My husband, Bill, who does all the cooking, could no longer stand it, and began a quest to create the perfect Casa de Snider version. The trick, he insists, is to roast the jalapeños on the grill until they get a nice char. Gone are the salsa cups, but always present is my craving for authentic Mexican food, which thank God, is plentiful here in the Ojai Valley, but you have to be willing to look for it.

Red Barn Liquor
11558 N. Ventura Avenue
A smoldering barbecue out in front of Red Barn Liquor, about half-way up the 33 between the 101 and Ojai in Miramonte, caused me to hit the brakes one day years ago and pull over. I ventured inside, past the pork rinds and bottles of Jose Cuervo, to find a “deli,” which isn’t so much a deli as it is a hole-in-the-wall taco stand all the way at the back of the liquor store. There I found a carnivore’s delight – they call it barbacoa – of tri-tip, chicken, lamb, and authentic Mexican specialties like pork carnitas, borrego (lamb) and birria (goat). Order by the pound, as a plata with tacos, as a burrito or as a torta (a Mexican sandwich with salsa, guacamole, lettuce, tomato, jalapeno and red onion). Mini chile rellenos, rice, beans, a complete gourmet salsa bar and soup specials, like menudo or pozole, are also offered. The prices are cheap; the food is authentic and soul stirring.

Productos La Flor De Michoacan
702 W El Roblar Drive
Next to a laundromat in Meiners Oaks sits a hidden gem. A Mexican market selling groceries, sundries, belts, wallets, piñatas, Mexican pastries and cheeses (the queso fresco is wonderful), Mexican sodas made with natural cane sugar (no corn syrup) and fresh cuts of meat from the butcher counter (including tri tip, carne asada and pigs feet, too). The highlight of the experience is the taco stand, which shares space with the butcher counter, where tacos, burritos, tortas and more are served up with a smile for curious visitors. I always have the pork carnitas, fried until crisp on the outside, succulent and moist on the inside, and served with warm corn tortillas, cilantro, onions, rice and beans. If you stay a while, you will swear you are in the heart of Mexico (the central western part, to be exact, as that is where Michoacan is).

La Herradura
107 E. El Roblar Drive
A couple blocks over from La Flor is Ojai’s newest Mexican eatery, La Herradura. This is a bit of a departure from a taco stand, with more of a restaurant feeling because the focus is squarely on the food (you still order at the counter). Here you will find many regional specialties from Jalisco, including the papas picosas burrito (stuffed with spicy potatoes), chicken mole, tacos al pastor (minced barbecued pork) and ceviche. My favorite dish is the chicken enchiladas, served with arguably the best green sauce in town (don’t tell my husband). The best part of the meal ends with a fresh hot cinnamon churro pastry filled with dulce de leche caramel.

Los Caporales Restaurant and Tequila Bar
307 E. Ojai Avenue, Suite 105
Having grown beyond my teenage palate, not only do I crave more spice, I crave a good margarita, which always brings me to Los Caporales, a sit-down restaurant located in the middle of downtown Ojai right across from the arcade. Serving up traditional family recipes from Zacatecas, the menu is extensive, as is the list of tequilas (more than 60 in all). Specialties of the house include pollo pibil (chicken cooked in achiote spice), chile relleno con carne de abuelita (a pasilla pepper stuffed with ground beef and grandmother’s almond sauce), and my favorite – the one that makes me remember the dish that caused me to put off my homework – nectar de los dioses (nectar of the gods). The owner tells the story of making “pot beans” – pinto beans topped with cilantro, tomatoes and Mexican crema – and serving it to her husband with warm tortillas. A customer saw this, but didn’t see it listed on the menu. He convinced the owner to let him order the dish and when he tasted it, he declared it the nectar of the gods. It’s been on the menu ever since. Best served with a house margarita, it is, indeed, nothing short of spiritual.

And so, I ask you, dear reader, with so many authentic Mexican eateries in Ojai, quieres comer?