The gettin's Good at Chili Peppers
By Allison Costa 06/04/2009
Chili Peppers Restaurant and Catering
601 Mobil Ave., Camarillo
Fancy jeans, dangly earrings, maybe shoes with a heel. I like to get dressed up on Friday nights, and apparently restaurants do, too. While I may don nicer clothes and lipstick, Chili Peppers restaurant dons white tablecloths and a fancier menu. Casual take-out place by day and a bit of an upscale restaurant by Friday night, Chili Peppers is a great discovery and a wonderful gathering place.
Chef Martin Ledesma has been offering Friday night specials for a few years now to showcase that this is more than "just a Mexican restaurant" and as a way to show what he is capable of in the catering arena. And the fact that the specials aren't revealed until that day adds a sense of surprise, especially for regular Friday night diners, of which there seem to be many.
When the four of us walked into the restaurant, we were greeted with warm smiles from the staff members gathered behind the counter, making a great first impression and setting a friendly tone for the rest of the evening. After we picked our table in the brightly colored dining room, a basket of chips and salsa arrived. The homemade salsa was freshly made and full of chunks of tomato, onion and cilantro; and the chips were crisp with a hint of salt. As often happens, they were gone in a flash.
On Friday nights, there is the regular menu (think tacos, burritos, tamales, etc.) and the specials menu, which usually consists of one appetizer ($6.95), two entree options ($13.95 each) and one dessert ($6.25). Wanting to experience as many of the specials as we could, we started with the tortilla soup: thick and spicy, with tender shredded chicken, chunks of avocado, crispy tortilla strips and a drizzle of sour cream. Two of us split the order, and we were pleasantly surprised when not one, but two large bowls of hot soup arrived. This was clearly a place where accommodating the customer just comes naturally.
The entree options were pan-roasted salmon with white cherry sauce and lemon mashed potatoes, or oven-roasted rack of lamb with green peppercorn sauce, sweet potato fries and ancho-chili ketchup. We chose the latter. The lamb was tender and peppery, perfectly pink on the inside, and even more delightful when swept through the pan sauce on the plate. The sweetness of the fries was a great complement, especially when paired with the interesting kick of the ketchup.
From the regular menu, we chose the carne asada tacos and a chile verde burrito. Now usually, when writing about food, I try to avoid using the word "good" because it isn't all that descriptive. But in this case, I keep coming back to it when I reflect on these two dishes. I just have to use it, and I mean it in the best way … the burritos and tacos are Good with a capital "G": classic and perfect and simple. The taco shell was brown and crispy, and while it crunched when bitten into, it did not break — the true test of a great taco. The shredded beef, both tender and flavorful, was topped with lettuce and a generous pile of shredded cheese. This taco was so Good it didn't need anything else — no salsa, no guacamole — just a napkin to wipe the juices running down your chin. The chile verde burrito — stuffed with rice, beans and shredded pork in the quintessential green salsa — was large, filling and uncomplicated.
We wrapped up our meal with the New York-style cheesecake. Not your standard Mexican fare, but, hey, given that we ate rack of lamb alongside crispy tacos, this wasn't really a typical meal anyway. Served with a strawberry sauce and a sprinkling of powdered sugar, forks were flying as we all raced to get a few bites before it disappeared.
Oh, and don't even get me started on the prices — it was the most reasonable yummy meal I've had in a long time. A generous dinner for four was only $45. As far as beverages, there are bottled beers ($2.75-$3) and wines from Santa Barbara Winery by the glass ($5). Diners are allowed to bring their own wine, and no corkage fee is charged. Many of the Friday night regulars, who all seemed to know each other and the staff, brought their own bottles of red, which were quickly opened and poured into nice big wine glasses.
This restaurant offers top-notch service, memorable food, reasonable prices and a family-like atmosphere. Chili Peppers is a great place to get classic Mexican food with a beer, or a one-of-a-kind gourmet dish with a glass of wine. But either way you go, there is no pretense — only pure Goodness.