Mexican food with California beach credibility
By Ron Russ 12/20/2012
Olas Mexican Grill
1860 Ventura Blvd.
I’ve driven past Olas Mexican Food in Camarillo hundreds of times. I must admit that I’ve never gone in because I tend to think that a Mexican/California/surfer restaurant often overcompensates in ambience for what it lacks in flavor and authenticity. After dining at Olas three times over the past two weeks, I can say that I was wrong on many levels, and I am now officially a regular.
Olas has an unexpected level of genuine heart that I never saw coming. It’s definitely no frills, but that’s precisely what it’s all about. When you walk in, the massive collage of surf memorabilia lets you know what the place is all about. This is not a “from the outside looking in” collection; there are plaques from the owner and staff from real surf competitions throughout the years. There are signed posters and framed pictures addressed to owner (and fellow surfer) Carlos Reyes. While the initial impression was great, I still found myself questioning why every time I drove by the restaurant, there was a line of at least 10 people waiting to order their food. I didn’t understand why, no matter what time of day I came by, there were at least 25 people in the restaurant eating. I guess I never gave them a chance because in my judgmental view, I thought the place would be “gimmicky.” I was wrong!
Olas is doing something that most restaurants don’t understand how to do. It undeniably puts the customers’ needs first by serving up honest food that tastes good, serving monstrous portions and somehow keeping it very cheap. What’s not to love about that? Last time I was in, I scanned the restaurant and saw families, field workers, teenage surfers, businessmen, young couples, etc. A mother of two was sitting with her husband and two kids and told me, “We love this place so much. The food is great. The service is perfect and we get so much for our money. It’s our favorite place in Camarillo.”
This is all fine, but authentic surf ambience and good intentions only go so far with me. You need to have tasty food to keep me coming back! I was famished and ready to do some damage so I happily ordered a shameful amount of food, which arrived to my table in exactly five minutes. I dove into the tacos first — fish, shrimp and carnitas. Starting with the tasty white fish taco, I noticed right away that there is a great homemade quality: well-seasoned meat folded between warm corn tortillas, a mountain of shredded lettuce, cheese and tomatoes.
The salsa bar, featuring fresh salsas prepared daily, was a welcome accompaniment to the fish taco. Adding that much lettuce to a taco often neutralizes the flavor of the taco’s protein, so I definitely advise loading up on salsas. The carnitas taco, however, was a heaping mound of slow-cooked shredded pork shoulder with a generous handful of melting cheese over the top. If you know about carnitas, you know that the work put in ahead of time marinating and slow-cooking makes all the difference. This one doesn’t need any salsa. For $2.60, it’s three times the size of tacos you’ll find at any neighboring Mexican restaurant. Let me just say, I have a date with this taco again next week and I asked it to bring a friend.
From there, I dove into the nachos — pinto beans, tomatoes, sour cream, guacamole and melting cheese atop crispy tortilla chips. I, being a self-proclaimed nacho connoisseur, would give them a passing grade, but knowing what I do now, I would order them smothered with the shockingly good chile verde. Both the chile verde and the chile Colorado are the stand-out flavors at Olas. They both have rich, slow-cooked pork and the verde has spicy kick to its sauce. The Colorado was milder, but also jam-packed with flavor. Add one of these to anything that you order and you’ll be very happy.
The only dish that I thought was lacking was the cheese enchilada. Maybe the bar was set high at that point after the pork dishes, but I found the enchilada sauce to be bland and forgettable. Luckily, I still had my shrimp taco to plow through. (I told you I was famished — don’t judge!) The shrimp taco, which was almost the size of the plate, did not disappoint. The shrimp were cooked perfectly and very well-seasoned. I recommend taking advantage of the supplied lime wedge, as the acid rounded out the dish perfectly.
I see myself going back to Olas on a regular basis. I like the fact that they are using local produce and the highest quality meat and seafood they can get. I like that the beers are in huge buckets of ice and there are bottle openers scattered around the restaurant, making it feel like a true beach party. And I especially like that, just for a second as I was leaving the restaurant, my eye caught the Endless Summer poster on the wall and I thought about maybe even going surfing after lunch. But a saner thought prevailed and I wisely went home and took a nap instead.