Viva la Familia
A culinary landmark of Santa Paula
By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer 04/24/2014
Familia Diaz Café & Cantina
245 South 10th St.
There’s no lack of impressive south-of-the-border cuisine in these parts, and yet Familia Diaz Café in Santa Paula still manages to stand out. This old fashioned beans-and-rice combination plate establishment has been going strong for more than 75 years, and the third generation of Diazs have kept up the tradition — and quality.
Established as Las Quince Letras saloon in 1936, founders Jose and Josepha Diaz began dishing up menudo, chile Colorado and other Mexican staples to hungry patrons of the raucous bar. As the years passed, the cantina evolved into a restaurant, the building expanded, and the bar stools gave way to cozy and comfortable booths. Colorful decor, arched entryways, tile paintings and a handful of wooden parrots pay homage to the family’s roots, and make for a warm, inviting and family-friendly atmosphere.
Walking in, the first thing that caught my eye was the cocktail lounge. Despite a modest footprint, the soft lighting, club chairs, and impressive array of top-shelf tequilas beckoned to me. More than 30 are offered, including several double-gold winners from the 2012 San Francisco World Spirits competition. To capitalize on the selection, the restaurant offers a “Taste of Tequila” tour as well as a tasting club that includes discounts — definitely something any tequila aficionado should consider. Naturally, Familia Diaz boasts a whole menu of margaritas, too, which are decent if not stellar. Fresh lime juice is a welcome touch, but pre-made margarita mix holds the drink back from true greatness. More in the mood for cerveza? Modelo (Especial and Negra varieties) and Dos Equis are both on tap.
Once seated, we immediately tore into the fresh, crisp tortillas and house salsa. Medium spicy, flavorful and tangy — perfect for a wide range of palates. I also helped myself to the “spicy hot” concoction at the self-serve salsa cart, and was pleasantly surprised: very well balanced and full of chili and tomato flavor, although admittedly milder than I expected; those who like the heat dialed up might be underwhelmed. All the salsas are made fresh on the premises, but the pico de gallo, tomatillo, and mild options were rather uninspired.
The food is everything you’d expect from an old-school Mexican joint: chile rellenos, enchiladas smothered in sauce and cheese, combination plates that pair everything from tacos to tamales, all served with generous helpings of rice and refried beans (which, by the way, are homemade and fantastic: textured but not starchy and delicately seasoned). But the best things on the menu are the specials made from decades-old family recipes. Especial de la Casa, developed by Dona Josepha during the Las Quince Letras days, pairs her justifiably famous spicy chile Colorado with cheese enchiladas, scrambled eggs, and a red California chile sauce. It’s every bit as rich and filling as it sounds, but so savory and delicious you won’t mind stuffing yourself (or taking home leftovers). The chile verde didn’t “wow” me at first, but its delicate flavor and tenderness grew on me. The star of the Familia Diaz constellation just might be the carnitas: generous chunks of pork, rubbed with “a family secret blend” of spices, crisp outside and almost buttery-soft inside — there was neither a dry nor greasy bite to be had. I greedily gobbled up my first taco without even bothering to add salsa.
Seafood dishes include whole braised ocean perch and seafood soup with clam and crab — a nice departure from the standard shrimp options. With a nod to vegetarians, light eaters and health-conscious diners, a selection of meatless and small-plate items are also available. One of the few missteps is the chile relleno: I had to dig through layers of cheese and sauce to find the chile, which was completely overwhelmed rather than complemented by the toppings. After the perfection of the carnitas, I expected so much more.
I found the service to be a mixed bag: lightning-fast and friendly during a weekday lunch, harried and a little neglectful on a busy Friday night. The problem seemed to lie with the kitchen: we were seated promptly and the bar kept the margaritas coming and the chip bowl filled. Still, the quality of the food went a long way toward alleviating our annoyance at the long wait. No complaints about the prices though; everything is under $15, and $8 for a margarita isn’t bad.
The restaurant’s founders built their business on homemade, authentic Mexican classics, and current owners Dan Diaz and Sandi Tovias (Jose and Josepha’s grandchildren) haven’t strayed far from their roots. If you’re craving hearty Mexican comfort food done right, Familia Diaz is definitely worth a drive up the 126.