FOOD & DRINK | By Ilona Saari

South of the Border Down Ojai Way

As my palate matured, so did my understanding of “cuisine.” But it wasn’t until I moved to California that I learned that Mexico really did have a cuisine. Like most countries, each region has its own take on Mexican fare, a mix of ancient Aztec, African slave and Conquistador dishes based around staples such as corn, beans, avocados, chili peppers, meat, cheese and chocolate (molé sauce – be still my heart!). What’s not to love about a cuisine founded by an ancient civilization that built pyramids populated by folks covered in gold jewelry and feathers, dashing explorers in colorful pantaloons and metal helmets on horseback … and African soul food?

Ojai is no exception to this California Mexican food tradition, from hole-in-the wall discoveries to cantinas and full-service restaurants, our town holds its own in its south of the border choices.

My first taste of Ojai Mexican was at Agave Maria’s, a great place to have dinner before a show at the Ojai Art Center Theater across the street.

It even has a “back story.” In 2010, motivated to recapture a piece of Ojai history, the Trudeau family restored the old house that had been the legendary Antonio’s restaurant for more than thirty years. Abandoned in the ‘90s, the space was in terrible shape and in need of serious repair. The family did just that and created Agave Maria, which has one of the loveliest dining patios in town. Sip a Pixie Tangerine margarita with a chips and salsa chaser and sample some of the Mexican, farm-to-table dishes such as ceviche and handmade chile relleños. Non-carb eaters can feast on Niman Ranch steaks or Chicken Campestre entrees. Since 1985, Casa de Lago has been feeding Ojaians delicious homemade Mexican food. Owners Joel, Gabriel and Sandra Hernandez are proud of their restaurants, one in Oak View, the other in the town of Ojai. Sit on the patio and enjoy the night air while dining on a tostada grande chicken entrée or the meltiest, cheeziest enchilada evah! Or try one of the house specialties such as beef or chicken fajitas for two, or shrimp rancheros.

Jim & Rob’s/Lisa’s Cantina seems always to be jammed with folks clamoring for its Mexican fare. From breakfast bowls to lunch tacos and burritos to dinner combinations, the food is fresh and delicious. Try the chimichango, their signature burrito, or their chicken tortilla soup that my husband says is the best in town. Grab a booth or table or go outside and find a table under the arbor and enjoy.

In Meiners Oaks, drop in at the rustic designed Don Lalo’s Mexican Food cantina for some delicious authentic Mexican favorites… everything from soups to tacos, burritos to tamales, quesadillas to buche (pork stomach). Something for everyone… and they cater!

In the “hole-in-the-wall” category, try the Red Barn Liquor store in Mira Monte. I always wondered why there was such a huge grill out in front of a liquor store barbequing chicken and meats (including goat, a specialty). What a surprise when I discovered in the back of the store an open doorway (hence the “hole-in-the-wall) that led into a small kitchen where inexpensive, Mexican food is cooked up.

The menu is extensive for such a tiny place. You name it, they make it. Grab your order and sit at the narrow counter in the kitchen, or take it outside to one of the umbrella tables.

Speaking of “holes-in-the-wall,” head to Ojai’s Tortilla House on Signal Street where you’ll find scrumptious, made-to-order treats such as burritos, tacos, quesadillas and specialty dishes made from recipes from Guanajuato, Mexico. Everything’s “to go” as there’s no seating in this tiny Mexican food gem. But, if it’s a beautiful day, sit down and enjoy your order on the bench out front and watch the world go by, or walk down the street and into Libbey Park for a picnic. Buen provecho!