Tia Babe’s Restaurant
125 10th St.
In 1975, Florence Ann Elwell founded Tia Babe’s Restaurant on Harvard Boulevard in Santa Paula. Bescendant of an early pre-Mission-era family tracing its roots to the early 18th century, Florence utilized old family recipes for her kind of funky, storefront, mostly take-away Mexican restaurant. Savvy foodies knew her chile verde was some of the best in Ventura County and, although modest, the freshly prepared offerings were cooked with care, love and great ingredients. In early October, a beautiful new building opened on 10th Street, and when the large sign announcing this building was the new home of Tia Babe’s Restaurant, the evening of the unannounced soft opening saw the parking lot full and every table filled: Such is the reputation of Tia Babe’s Mexican food.
Tia Babe’s signature dish is the corn burrito, a taquito-seeming creation that is filled with refried beans and topped with Tia’s “cornie sauce,” a red, enchilada-type, not-too-spicy sauce, and then smothered in a light cheddar/jack cheese combination. Four of these are $4.50; and if you go with someone else, you’ll think one dish might be enough for a shared appetizer. Trust me: go for the six or eight pieces; two is just not enough because they are that good!
Your meal will have started with a bowl of chips and homemade salsa. The chips are fresh and unsalted; I liberally make use of the salt shaker with them, but that is mainly to counterbalance the jalapeño fire of the delicious salsa. One would think the many leaves of the fresh cilantro in the salsa would tone down the spicy taste; instead, it adds just that excellent garden taste, and I guarantee you will ask for a second bowl of the salsa. At first, it seems a little thin and watery; but the flavor is so enticing, you just can’t stop eating it. Interestingly, chef/owner Florence (the tia of Tia Babe’s) is nearly 80 and is in the kitchen and restaurant every day. ’Tis said the spiciness of the salsa depends on her mood that day; I am very grateful she is one fire-y lady.
I always start with the corn burritos at Tia Babe’s, but other options include flautas, giant quesadillas (with or without meat), nachos (really delicious when smothered in chili verde), taquitos (chicken or beef) and even chicken strips for the non-adventurous eater.
Three soups are offered: albondigas, chicken and vegetable. This is probably my least favorite item on the menu; although fresh, the vegetables are a little overcooked and the flavor of the albondigas not only doesn’t overpower the bland vegetable base, it doesn’t seem to do justice to the meaty additions.
The soup, however, or large salad, for that matter all seems like unnecessary filler when the main course arrives. Tia Babe’s has always been noted for its chili verde, and in this new space, the delicately cubed chunks of pork, tomatillo, garlic and cumin all show why so many people have raved for so long about this selection. The chili verde is also my recommendation for a burrito here. Nothing fancy about this dish, just well prepared, good savory ingredients and that something special — TLC — that is always present in home-cooked food. One of Tia’s most interesting and delicious creations is the chili verde enchilada, which combines the chili verde with her tasty enchilada sauce and is rolled into corn tortillas and, again, smothered with the ever-present cheddar/jack cheese combination.
For the non-Mexican-food eaters, there is a full selection of gourmet burgers. I’m tempted by the chile relleno burger but somehow can’t break myself from Tia’s Mexican cuisine specialties. The restaurant is spacious decorated in a contemporary version of Mission style, inviting and very comfortable, with two dining rooms painted in slate eggshell green with tan and rusty red highlights. Despite the size, it feels like is dining in someone’s comfortable, well-appointed dining room.
A friend of mine is not as much interested in the food as he is in the beverage area. Although horchata is the only traditional Mexican brew offered for non-imbibers, the full bar offers many unique (and, according to my friend, absolutely top-drawer) drink creations. Apparently, the Ventura Limoncello martini and the Cadillac margarita (made with blue agave tequila) are particularly outstanding.
Tia’s tamales are also worth trying, large pieces of pork tenderloin surrounded by a very creamy and tasty masa, and then covered with a red chili, chunky meat gravy and, of course, the ubiquitous cheese combination. I would love for Tia’s to offer chopped green onions as an added garnish, but most dishes do not require the addition of this ingredient to appreciate the careful blend of flavors.
Prices, across the board, are reasonable ($4.50-$13.95). For those seeking the authenticity of a Mexican-street vendor ambience, Tia Babe’s is not the restaurant. But for those who want good, homestyle Mexican food in a comfortable, beautifully designed new building and an attentive, friendly professional staff, Tia Babe’s is the new place to go. The date for the official grand opening set for Saturday, Nov. 27, though the restaurant has been fully operational for nearly two months. If early indications are a sign, this new addition to the Santa Paula dining scene will be consistently full of very satisfied patrons.