La Herradura  
107 E. El Roblar Drive

Meiners Oaks was bustling with activity as I drove up El Roblar. Traffic yielded for children on their bikes, and a group of teenagers was standing on a corner in bikinis eating popsicles. Walking toward La Herradura, “Order number 12!” echoed from the Jolly Kone’s microphone across the street. Although school hasn’t let out yet, it felt like the beginning of summer.

I was texted about La Herradura by a friend who’d recently moved to Ojai from Oxnard. “I’m so excited, we found our Mexican food in Ojai!” Apparently Fernando, the chef and co-owner of La Herradura, has also cooked at Azu in Ojai, Watermark on Main in Ventura and Enzo’s in Santa Paula, and it’s not unheard of for La Herradura to feature teriyaki or panna cotta as a special. Though its cuisine is primarily Mexican from the state of Jalisco, there’s also a hint of Mexi-fusion and beyond.

La Herradura’s interior is a cheery sunny hue. Fernando’s wife, co-owner Virginia Duarte, greeted us. She oozed kindness with her every word and smile.

We ordered at the counter, picked up my horchata and decided to enjoy the spring weather by eating at the lone table outside. A basket of chips and fresh salsa arrived and our food shortly followed.

Our lunch selections arrived on heavy goldenrod- and avocado-colored plates, and each was prettier than the first.

We’d ordered a mélange hoping to sample different flavors. We had an al pastor pork taco on a corn tortilla, a chicken enchilada with verde sauce, cheese enchilada with roja sauce, a chicken mole burrito, chile relleno and a carne asada and chipotle torta.  The colors of the ingredients and sauces shown against the festive plates like a sunset.

My companion started with the carne asada torta and I began with the chicken mole burrito. My burrito was filled with rice, beans and delectable moist chunks of chicken, all mixed with a mild mole sauce. The sauce carried layers of melded flavors and ended with a fermented hint of something akin to a dark, rich beer. It was simple, satisfying and comforting. I looked up at my companion, happily dissecting her torta like a biology experiment — all the while, blowing her nose between bites.

“Is the chipotle hot?” I teased.  “Yes!” she cried in return, “and addictive! “I want to eat the whole thing — but I think I’ll be in trouble if I do.” I suggested it might be time for her to taste another dish.

Next, I tried the al pastor (marinated, barbecued pork) taco on a small corn tortilla. My first bite of the cubed pork was one of those moments – bliss. Steeped in a tasty marinade, it had just the right amount of fat-to-lean ratio. As I went into further bites, I found heat. My companion laughed as I slurped my horchata. “Chipotle?” she queried with a smirk. I examined the golden sauce on the torta and taco, and they were the same and both had some fairly intense heat.

I then sliced open the chile relleno. It has a gorgeous curlicue of a fried stem on top. The tomato sauce was salty but when combined with the creamy cheese and mild pepper, I quite enjoyed it. It had a very thin batter and the cheese was quite firm, almost like a halloumi. My companion said it was the best she’d had. Although I quite liked it, it’s not my best relleno ever. That title goes to a dish I had in Taos — New Mexico is famous for its homegrown chilis.

The enchiladas were one of the unusual dishes my friend had texted about. They appeared on the plate more like a salad than what I was accustomed to. There were queso fresco sprinkles and shredded lettuce on top, and as I dug down a bit further I found cubes of perfectly cooked potatoes mixed in. Digging further, I hit the sauces followed by more of the oh-so-tender chicken and, inside the cheese enchilada, more queso fresco. It was unlike any enchilada experience I’ve had. My companion dubbed them “delicate,” an apt description. Then shortly afterward, she stole the plate and ate them in their entirety.

I sampled the torta, a gorgeous mess of a kitchen-sink sandwich, meaning it literally had everything on it. The huge portion of cubed carne asada was lean and tender. There were lettuce, beans, queso fresco, chipotle salsa, guacamole, onions and slathers of Mexican crema on the bread. Yes, the salsa was hot and smoky from the chipotle, and I couldn’t eat a ton of it, but the guacamole and bread and creamy components balanced its heat.

Just as we’d hit our limit, Virginia treated us to some freshly fried churros. They were everything I’d expect plus a bit more, including a hidden, melted caramel center.

We ended the meal sharing our churos with a man who’d ridden up on his bike and one final sweet laugh with Virginia. As I drove back down El Roblar on my way home, the smell of orange blossoms wafted through my windows.

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