Fresh Mex round two: a home run
By Allison Costa 12/17/2009
Fresh Mex Bar and Grill
4238 Saviers Road
Scholars, philosophers and opposing religions have been debating the notion of reincarnation since the dawn of time. And though this lowly writer isn’t prepared to take an official stance, I am a believer when it comes to restaurants. Take, for example, Fresh Mex Bar and Grill. This restaurant lived for five years in downtown Ventura (in the spot where Dargan’s now sits) until it closed in 2004. Three months ago, it was reincarnated when owner Jaime Sandoval opened a new Fresh Mex in Oxnard. On a recent Thursday night, we headed out to see what this place, born anew, was all about.
It’s kind of nondescript from the outside. No big sign and not a lot of windows. The grill, or restaurant, area feels a bit like a bar, with painted cement floors, vinyl booths and loud rock music blaring from the speakers. The bar area, complete with a few video games and an ATM, also hints at the restaurant side as patrons chow burritos alongside their cervezas. What distinguishes Fresh Mex Bar and Grill from all those other bar and grill kind of places is that it is doing everything well. Great drinks? Check. Good food? Check. Excellent service? Check.
For being a bar kind of place, the menu is impressive, full of traditional Mexican dishes but also a great selection of steaks, seafood and sandwiches. There are beers on tap and a wide selection of cocktails and margaritas. Wanting to fully embrace the bar component of this restaurant, I went for the Caddy de Fresh Mex Margarita (the Cadillac of the margarita list). Made with 1800 Reposado Tequila, it comes in its very own souvenir cocktail shaker. Manager Adrian Ybarra hand-delivered it to the table, shook it and poured a taste in the shaker top. I was taken aback by the hullabaloo surrounding my cocktail, but apparently that’s what you get when you order the caddy. I poured my drink, ice and all, into the beautifully salted glass. With that first sip, I knew immediately: the bar had been raised. The drink was tangy and strong enough to taste the tequila in every sip, but tame enough that I was still coherent. This just might become my margarita benchmark as I go forward in life.
In addition to the standard chips and salsa, we started with an appetizer of queso fundido. This dish of gooey, melted cheese is enhanced with chorizo that imparts a bit of red, spicy oil into the cheese. Scooping it out by the stringy forkful, we wrapped the soft and spicy mixture in warm tortillas. While it’s not gonna win any beauty contests, for cheese lovers this queso fundido is a thing of beauty.
Studying the menu, we were tempted by the carnitas, deep fried citrus marinated pork, and the chiles en nogadas, a pasilla pepper stuffed with shredded beef, almonds, raisins, apple, garlic and cheese, and then topped with sour cream and almonds. Alas, from the list of house specialties we selected the adobada. We were sold by the menu description of this pork that is roasted for six hours in an adobo sauce made with a secret blend of spices and Mexican chocolate.
Arriving at the table, it conjured up memories of days in the South eating juicy shredded barbecue, because that’s what it looked like. Yet this plate was adorned with fluffy rice and chunky refried beans. And when I tasted the pork, I was quickly reminded: I’m not in Georgia anymore. The pork was finely shredded, soft and buttery, and dressed in a red sauce that was spicy, smooth and totally different from a Southern barbecue sauce. Spread down the center of a warm corn tortilla and wrapped up, the meat was so juicy I probably should have been wearing a bib.
Our friendly server spoke so highly of the chef and his ability with steaks that we also opted for the bistec ranchero. This dish consisted of thinly cut steak sautéed with green peppers and onions. It was dressed in a mild sauce that added a hint of spice, but didn’t overpower. The meat was cooked so well — crispy on the outside and pink on the inside — it didn’t need anything else. We spread it on flour tortillas with the vegetables and sour cream.
And now to the superb service. Oftentimes at a place like this, a casual bar and grill, average service is the norm; but not so at Fresh Mex. Our waitress was knowledgeable, patient and handled menu questions well. She made some recommendations, but also asked questions to help steer us to the meals we were destined to eat. The manager, Adrian, seemed to be aware of us the whole night … serving our drinks, interacting with the kids, and making sure we left with a takeout menu. All in all, this restaurant in a bar’s clothing is a diamond in the rough, a gem of a restaurant behind a modest facade.