Don Lalo’s Mexican Food
585 W. El Roblar
Meiners Oaks/Ojai
640-3736.
$3-$9.00

The other day I found myself in Ojai around lunchtime, and it was 107 degrees outside. Still, I was anxious to get to my newly preferred lunchspot: Don Lalo’s Mexican Food in Meiners Oaks. The restaurant opened last April in the space formerly occupied by Mmm La La and several other restaurants. The history of that corner has not boded well for long-term stability. I hope that now, with Angel Soto serving his always tasty, affordable and enjoyable traditional Mexican cuisine this area of Ojai will develop a long relationship with this new restaurant. Angel also owns the very popular Lalo’s on Ventura Avenue in Ventura.

Interior- and design-wise this is not the best space. You could be in a farmside cafe in Idaho or any Midwestern Mom and Pop home-cookin’ place. It is very much designed for take-away, so if you choose to eat at one of the tables, don’t expect fine service or fancy tablesettings. Your order, however, will be brought to your table by one of the polite and smiling kitchen helpers, and you will be most pleased with whatever it is you have ordered.

All the tamales are made on site and have a very delicious masa; they are overfilled with pork, pasilla chile relleno, beef or chicken, and the covering chile colorado sauce tastes freshly made with care of ingredients, rather than the usual canned fare one finds in many restaurants these days. For lunch, I like the sopes — small hand crafted three-inch diameter and quarter-inch-thick, round corn tortilla-like shells, topped with pork (either carnitas or al pastor), beef or chicken, and also with tomatoes, cilantro, crema fresca, jalapeños, cheese and lettuce.  These little nibbles are scrumptious, and a good starter, or even a great full meal (two sopes with rice, beans, salad and tortillas are only $6.25 — a real bargain.)

My standard order in any Mexican restaurant when I first visit is the pork chile verde. At Don Lalo’s, I was not disappointed — good sized chunks of pork shoulder, tomatillos, green chiles, onions, garlic and tomatoes. I wanted it to have slightly more green chile flavor than so strongly to favor the tomatillos, but it was very tasty, as was the red chile colorado on subsequent visits. The rice is mighty good, if somewhat typical, ordinary Mexican-style rice, although it keeps a very fluffy and savory texture. The refried beans are outstanding — not too mushy and yet unadulterated in taste and preparation. These beans were not just poured out of a can into a pan and onto your plate.  Like most dishes I’ve tried at Don Lalo’s, even the beans taste of home preparation and attention to ingredients.

I opted for the camarones a diabla for dinner one evening; my companion went for the shrimp tampiqeña. The diabla version was spicy and very flavorful. Because of the freshness of the chiles, it was obvious they had been ground that day and, although fiery, the spiciness did not overwhelm the firm fresh shrimp flavor. My friend’s shrimp tampiqeña was a great mixture of green chiles and cheese; the green serrano chile flavor really prevailed in the few bites I managed to sneak before my friend grabbed the plate back. Both shrimp dishes were very good indeed, and the shrimp cocktail I saw on someone else’s table was plentiful and looked amazing (as did the expression on the diner’s face after the first bite).

Breakfast is served all day at Don Lalo’s, and if one is in the area, it is well worth the visit. Each dish is cooked to order, and while many of us enjoy breakfast burritos on the run, there is nothing like the taste of the eggs, potatoes, cheese and chorizo cooked, wrapped and served immediately to the diner. (And at $4.50, this is a hearty and delicious way to start the day.)  I’m also always a sucker for huevos machaca, that traditional delicious egg, jalapeño, onion, dried meat mixture that really starts the morning off with a jolt.

I’ve yet to try the enchiladas; they’ve looked quite yummy at a neighboring diner’s table. The guacamole is fresh, chunky and tasty, but not quite piquant enough for my palate. However, with the addition of the spicy fresh red salsa sauce, it rocks, and happily necessitates another order of fresh chips. Desserts are weak here; right now, a crispy churro is the only option, although Angel is deciding between arroz con leche or flan, I hope he opts for the rice dish as it is rarely served  locally and is a great sweet end to a filling meal.

As I’ve been writing this review, I’ve been thinking about how reasonable the prices at Don Lalo seem to be. Servings are generous, service is friendly and helpful; I asked myself, what would make it a wow? Possibly a slightly fancier décor and more marketing pizzaz in presentation, but that would add another $3 or $4, at least, to every dish. The taco salad was great, overly plentiful in contents, and a real deal at $7. Would I still feel it was great at $10 or $11? As a foodie, probably, but as a regular diner, probably not. As it is now, Don Lalo’s is great food at great value. It is my hope that it will stay that way, in that location, for a long time to come.

jrgrantfoodie@gmail.com