A new/old standby in Santa Paula
Chili Hut Cafe
By JR Grant 03/27/2014
Chili Hut Cafe
817 E. Main St.
About 20 years ago, I went on a Southern California great chili search and someone suggested I try the Chili Hut in Santa Paula. The great English chef Jamie Oliver once described chili as “the nearest natural form of morphine.” The restaurant’s look was retro unpretentious ’50s diner style (chrome, swivel counter stools, red naugahyde booths, faux granite tabletops), clean, crisp and welcoming. The chili was thick and hearty, with ground beef and a tomato-sauce base, and I remember it being spicy (but not overly so) and sort of old-fashioned in style and preparation. Not quite Morpheus dreamy but certainly pleasing.
Over the years the restaurant has changed hands several times, but the familiar chili recipe (with a few modifications) has remained. Last October the restaurant was purchased by the Magdaleno family, and manager Liz and her various brothers and family friends are revamping the menu and giving new life to the site with energized and revitalized menu options. The chili, for example, was reminiscent of earlier times, yet slightly more flavorful (and even better if you request additional onions and cheese).
When I go to a new breakfast restaurant, I often order biscuits and gravy just to see how authentically the kitchen prepares them. At the Chili Hut I was so not disappointed: flaky, homemade airy biscuits topped with a spicy sausage-laden creamy and flavorful gravy. I immediately knew that this was a chef who cared about quality preparation and home-style presentation. From the number of local breakfast diners, it was also apparent that word has spread that this breakfast standby go-to restaurant has returned.
The breakfasts include omelets, French toast, breakfast burritos and customary selections. Recently added to the additional meat offerings, however, are the noted Magdaleno chili verde and a delicious pork chorizo sausage option. Slowly but surely bits of the family recipes are appearing on the menu, either as daily specials or selections additional to the printed items.
The other day at lunch I ordered the Philly cheese steak special. It was served on a delicious chewy French loaf, smothered in a fairly runny cheddar mixture, and was a terrific value at $6.95. I also ordered onion rings, which were not spectacular but certainly an adequate accompaniment to the Philly sandwich. Another lunch visit, I opted for the patty melt. Again, it wasn’t spectacular but it was exactly what I want in a patty melt: a juicy, fresh burger covered in grilled onions and melted Swiss cheese, and grilled to a crunchy and slightly messy hot sandwich.
The pulled pork sandwich was good; its accompanying red cabbage and carrot cole slaw was an interesting twist on a fairly common menu item these days. I’ve yet to make it to the Chili Hut on a Saturday or Sunday for the menudo, but I’m sure this, yet another family recipe, is a big hit with weekend diners.
Every day on the counter there is a dessert special: sometimes a berry pie or a very delicious and homemade-looking chocolate cake. Also available for the sweet tooth are vanilla ice cream cones and milkshakes and malts, and even banana splits. This small restaurant is very much like what small-town diners have offered customers in decades of yore. It is not just reasonably priced, but also what in the real estate trade is called “pride of ownership.”
The cafe is not going to win any awards for extra-special, uniquely prepared, one-of-a-kind fusion creations. It is basic, familiar and certainly comforting traditional cuisine. And when you have even just a side of the chili verde, you know the recipe came from somebody’s grandmother. Santa Paula has been called the town that time forgot, and that is certainly well-represented by the newly minted and revitalized bit of new Americana called the Chili Hut Cafe.