Santa Cruz Mexican Cuisine
4587 Telephone Road

“Delicious Mexican food” has always been the promise made by Santa Cruz Mexican Cuisine, one made using loud red lettering on a vinyl sign that stretches above the random industrial park location (near the Ventura DMV). Usually when restaurants make such promises using vinyl signs, you can trust your inner skeptic and keep driving. That would be a mistake though with Santa Cruz Mexican Cuisine, which now has that big sign up to let lots of already loyal patrons know that it’s back in business.

Until Feb. 25, many people had been waiting a long time to taste this food again. For seven months Santa Cruz was closed to repair water damage caused by a faulty fire sprinkler system. Just three days after reopening, my fiance and I walked in for a late lunch and found just one booth left in the place. Like many others, I’d come for the pozole on that first visit, and I was skunked by the early birds. After ordering with some haste at the counter we settled into our booth and examined the menu, which includes all the taqueria fare you’d expect, plus daily menudo and pozole, sopes, gorditas and some vegetarian options, too.

The first positive impression about the food here came when we were brought a basket of freshly fried tortilla chips that needed no salt. With the bold smokiness of the red salsa and the vibrant zing of the green salsa to alternate between, the first meal here was off to a good start. The second thing that hooked me was the carnitas, which I sampled in a torta. The slow-cooked, fat-poached pork was perfectly crisped, with caramel-colored browning on the hunks of meat. It was moist but stopped short of greasiness; and with the fresh spongy torta roll and a good smear of guacamole in the mix, that carnitas torta was a fine sandwich.

Tacos come in either soft, hard or the cheaper minitortillas. A bunch of minis seemed the best way to sample the various meats; asada and pastor were good, in line with many other good local taquerias, but not great like the carnitas.

The tripas tacos are the outstanding option. They’re apart from the other tacos in that they’re unavailable in minisize and insistently served in soft corn tortillas (for good reason). The little ringlets of tripe are deep-fried to the point of crunchiness, making for exquisite little cracklings that contrast with the supple, fresh corn tortillas. The flavor is thick and, after adding green salsa and a good squeeze of lemon, these tacos become perfect.

With the burritos, pay the extra $1.95 to get it “enchilada style,” which adds the sour cream and guacamole that you’d pay for with the “gourmet burrito,” plus a fat patty of jack cheese and a pool of red or green salsa — a belly bomb in the best of ways.

Unfortunately the corn burritos here are a letdown. Have you ever explained corn burritos to someone and started by saying “they’re basically refried-bean taquitos, but … ”? Well you could leave out the “but” with these. Instead of steaming red sauce and melted cheese on top, these came with a meager garnish of cheese, plus sour cream and guacamole on the side — refried-bean taquitos, basically.

The No. 1 thing to send someone here for would be the pozole, which we were able to try after a second stab at ordering it. At first you might think the scarlet-orange broth needs more spiciness, but then the guajillo chile wins you over with an earthy depth bolstered by soft garlic cloves and onion. With the slow-simmered pork and hominy, plus some intermittent pinches of onion, cilantro and cabbage off the side plate, this soup and a tripas taco leave you deeply satisfied.

Like all the top Mexican food places in the county, at Santa Cruz some things you will try and love, others less so. What Santa Cruz definitely has going for it is that it’s seriously affordable (everything is less than $10) and the staff is exceptionally friendly — two factors that surely won over the families that packed the booths after the reopening; all around were kids, parents and grandparents chewing contentedly.