Yolanda’s Mexican Cafe
2753 E. Main St.
Additional locations in Camarillo, Oxnard and Simi Valley
$9.95-$29.95 dinner

I have lived in and traveled to many cities across the country, from New York City to Atlanta, Sedona to Seattle. I have eaten many kinds of foods and different cuisines common to those regions, and if there is one thing that could be said of typical Southern California fare, it’s that locals love Mexican food — more so than anywhere else in the country that I have seen.

Ever since I was a little kid, growing up in Ventura, we would eat Mexican at least once a week, if not more — at home or out — and if we weren’t eating Mexican, then I would be stuffing a tortilla with spaghetti or dipping one in my soup. It never occurred to me that that might be unusual, but anything that resembles the regional take on Mexican food is truly a part of our culture. (Given I have also lived in Baja, Mexico, what I have eaten down south isn’t nearly as indulgent as what we have here.)

Suffice it to say, if Mexican food is a part of Southern California culture, then Yolanda’s Mexican Café is a part of Ventura County culture. (I have visited Yolanda’s in Oxnard and Ventura, but I have yet to see the same exuberant atmosphere in Camarillo or Simi Valley for the mere fact that the other two are closer.)

At the Ventura location, we were seated in the back near the room for parties. It was a busy night with almost every booth taken. Given that it was a busy night, the server was just a bit slow in taking our drink orders, but the crispy chips, bean dip and chunky mild salsa arrived quickly, so they were enough to occupy us in the meantime. Then there is the salsa bar to keep us amused, which has six different kinds of salsa, plus cilantro and onions, peppers, taco sauce, jalapeños and other accouterments for your meal. My favorite salsas are the avocado salsa, a creamy, smooth blend of avocado, cilantro and citrus, and the Yucatan salsa — slightly chunky, but minced blend of tomatoes, onions, garlic, cilantro and chile, or so my taste buds were telling me. The staff was much too busy to get all the details from them.

For dinner, my companions chose a double order of the shrimp fajitas and I opted for something I’ve never tried before, the carnitas Vera Cruz. I have been going to Yolanda’s since I was a young one, so this indeed was new territory for me as my preference is burritos, or apparently anything wrapped in a tortilla.

I received the complimentary cup of abondigas soup — a flavorful beef broth with dense meatballs, carrots, tomatoes and celery — that came with my dinner, and our orders came out 10 to 15 minutes after we put them in. The fajitas were crackling and steaming, as is the standard protocol at Mexican restaurants, and the carnitas Vera Cruz was served in a roasting dish. (I opted for tomatoes instead of rice and beans.)

The fajitas, served with guacamole and pico de gallo (a bit spicy), were piping hot. Plump and with just the right amount of chewiness, the shrimp came atop sautéed bell peppers and onions in a rich beefy fajita sauce. My companions devoured them rather quickly as I tried to snatch one of the shrimp for a taste test and almost lost a finger — well, maybe not, but I had to grab my bite fast.

The carnitas Vera Cruz — now that was an interesting dish. The carnitas Vera Cruz ingredients sound very similar to barbacoa (a shredded beef dish), which I make at home. Familiar flavors drew me in — tender shredded pork sautéed with chopped jalapeños, cilantro, tomatoes and diced onions with Yolanda’s mild taco sauce. Other than the fact that it was a bit greasy and had a few chunks of gristle, it was rather tasty and tangy in all the right ways. Adding my favorite salsas and fresh-squeezed lemon juice to the dish cut down the grease. The fresh Roma tomatoes balanced out the heavy meal.

There is no doubt that Yolanda’s is a favorite of locals — maybe because it has been around nearly 30 years and is a staple of Ventura’s fabric, maybe because Southern Californians are addicted to Mexican food, maybe because the price is decent, especially happy hour. Whatever the case may be, Yolanda’s is sure to remain steadfast in our community for years to come.