Mexican Restaurants of "The Avenue" in Ventura
For a time last year, my personal goal was to eat at all the Mexican restaurants along Ventura Avenue, the north-south drag at the western edge of Ventura that everyone refers to simply as the Avenue. I was new in town and it seemed like a good way to get to know the place—plus an excuse to eat tacos.
Through some alchemy of demographics and zoning, the Avenue has been spared the onslaught of chain retail that’s homogenized many a main street in medium-size towns across America just like this one. Instead, the Avenue is a center of entry-level capitalism in Ventura. On a typical stretch you might find a beauty salon, an auto- body shop, a launderette and, of particular interest to me, some sort of Mexican eatery.
As I ate my way up and down the road that once formed part of El Camino Real, I found the kind of Mexican-American food that’s endemic to California and that I’ve always loved. These are meals that are particularly well-suited for when you are very, very hungry, as I am most of the time, or hungover: never-ending supplies of chips and salsa; tacos, enchiladas and chile rellenos, preferably served in combination plates dripping in cheese; and burritos the size of a child’s arm.
Alongside these old favorites I also discovered Mexican food that embodies the ethos of California cuisine—fresh, healthy, sometimes locally sourced dishes—with a side of Ventura history. These were the places that kept me coming back long after I had managed to eat my way through the Avenue the first time.
Toward the north end of the Avenue, lipstick-red-headed pumpjacks lumber like exotic elderly egrets bobbing for prey. This lingering evidence of Ventura’s 1920s oil boom sits just a few blocks away from Lalo’s Fast Food, an Avenue institution whose use of the phrase “fast food” belies the dishes they serve.
There are hamburgers and French fries, but there are also ceviche tostadas and shrimp aguachiles, a platter of plump white crustaceans dressed in lime juice and studded with diced cucumber and habanero chili. On weekends, there are oysters, too, $9 a half-dozen. And there’s always house-made flan drizzled with dulce de leche for dessert. At $2 a slice it’s one of the best deals in town. Lalo’s Fast Food, 1580 N. Ventura Ave., 805-667-6628
POKER CHIPS & SALSA
From the 1930s until it reopened in 2011 on Auto Center Drive, the Avenue was home to Pinky Donohoo’s Players Poker Club, whose legendary late owner lost a hand in a rabbit hunting accident as a teenager and subsequently learned how to shuffle and deal a deck of cards with one hand. The former site of the club also happens to be a block north of El Jarocho, where the only chips are the edible kind. There’s an excellent salsa bar—try the orange-hued, peanut-based concoction—but I prefer my chips arrayed around a large plastic cup of El Jarocho’s standout shrimp cocktail, or camarones coctel. The gazpacho-like creation comes topped with sliced avocado and a mixed version includes octopus and abalone, too. El Jarocho, 819 N. Ventura Ave., 805-652-1856
ROOT TO SHOOT
At Cuernavaca Taqueria the menu is a reminder that nose-to-tail eating was a thing long before British chef Fergus Henderson popularized the term in a 2004 book of the same name. There are tacos of tripe, tongue, suadero (a cut of beef between the belly and leg) and chorizo, but my favorites are the vegetable fillings: potatoes or mushrooms served atop double corn tortillas with pasilla chilis and a film of singed cheese. The gordita requesón is another excellent vegetarian option: a thick grilled tortilla cut lengthwise and stuffed with jalapeños, ricotta cheese and shredded lettuce. Cuernavaca Taqueria, 1117 N. Ventura Ave., CuernavacaTaqueria.com
Nopal, the paddle of the Opuntia cactus, was an important food staple for Spanish missionaries in California and you can still taste it every Friday at Taqueria Tepatitlan in their special of nopalitos con carne de puerco (diced cactus with pork and sauce). Owner Juan Gonzalez proudly sources produce for all of the restaurant’s menu of Mexican classics from local vendors, including farmers’ markets, local supermarkets and individual farmers. Whether you choose a booth in the front room or sidle up to the bar in the back, the friendly service and fresh food makes Taqueria Tepatitlan the best place for a sit-down dinner on the Avenue. Taqueria Tepatitlan, 326 N. Ventura Ave., TaqueriaTepatitlan.com
Another take on the same cactus comes from Ventura Spirits’ Opuntia Prickly Pear Spirit. Each batch begins with over a ton of the California-grown fruit at the company’s Avenue distillery. Try it as an alternative to tequila when you need a cocktail to wash down your next Mexican meal. Ventura Spirits Company, 3891 N. Ventura Ave. (Not open to the public; see website for info: VenturaSpirits.com.)
Jennifer Richardson is the author of Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage, the 2013 Indie Reader Discovery Award winner for travel writing. She and her husband call both Ventura and the English Cotswolds home. To learn more, visit Americashire.com.