El Rey Cantina
294 E. Main St.
With a decent happy hour and live music on weekends, the El Rey Cantina in downtown Ventura has been a happening spot since it opened in 2008. The kitschy décor (who doesn’t love a velvet Elvis?) and south-of-the-California-border cuisine are a draw for the area’s foodies. A wide array of top-shelf tequilas and 10 specialty cocktails (plus the fixings for whatever else you might want) make it a great spot for a drink before or after the show. And the kitchen closes late — it’s the perfect place to refuel after painting the town or heading to that after-hours party. Not content to rest on its nightlife laurels, the El Rey has extended the party to the daylight hours, opening their doors for the lunchtime crowd with a (slightly) revamped menu to boot.
Let’s start with the tacos — easily some of the tastiest and most popular items you’ll find there. Many are the same, although some of the combinations have been improved upon. The Baja Fish has achieved a fine balance. With tender fish, crunchy and tart red cabbage, and spicy habanero cream, it hits several flavor profiles at once, bringing out the best in each. It’s also pretty piquant, so a healthy swig of your cerveza might be in order. You’ll find other tacos with that heat level (the El Diablo is aptly named, and Sriracha cream is used liberally) but it’s not a universal condition. El Rey’s al pastor is on the milder, tomatoey side, but still really flavorful and tasty. (Perhaps a little too tender? It could have done with some texture, methinks.) The Guero, Gringo and Cabo Tacos would also be fine for more delicate taste buds. I admire a restaurant that doesn’t make “spicy” a stand-in for “taste”; El Rey recognizes that there are a lot of ways to make food flavorful. The marinated mushroom taco is one of the newer items, and has a promising list of ingredients — roasted poblanos, grilled tomato and onion, balsamic vinegar — that don’t actually pay off; it just seemed like sautéed mushrooms wrapped in a corn tortilla to me. I think the old recipe was better.
Regulars know that the homemade bean dip is a great way to wolf down those deliciously addictive chips. The new approach is to sprinkle the chorizo on top instead of mixing it in. I didn’t find this to enhance the experience, but it probably makes it easier to omit the meat for vegetarians, so point taken. An interesting addition is the South American-style tartar. This unusual concoction isn’t a ceviche or a poke, but it put me in mind of both. Diced fresh tuna, onions and avocado chunks in a coconut jalapeño lime sauce, beautifully presented in a coconut shell. More style than substance, I’m afraid: over-sauced, too creamy and a poor fit for the fish. It’s better with the chips, which add a needed salty-crunchy element.
There’s been some shake-up in the entrees, too, and although the molasses-reposado-soaked pork chop beckoned, I’m a sucker for a hot dog on game night. The Sonora Dog did not disappoint. Wrapped in bacon and topped with tomatillo sauce, salsa fresca and pickled jalapeños, it was perfectly at home on the El Rey menu — and also a deliciously inventive treatment of the standard wiener. Long live fusion.
It’s doubtful that the El Rey has ever been celebrated for its desserts, especially considering that only two are offered. But on a whim I ordered the Mexican chocolate pudding — and I’m so glad I did. Chocolate, cinnamon, a hint of almonds, almost light enough to be a mousse … a delectable little grace note.
Prices have always been a selling point here. You can get tacos for as little as $2.50, and even the priciest entree is only $16. Happy hour has been expanded, shaving a buck off each taco and promising $5.50 margaritas and $3 beer. (El Rey also has a reverse happy hour from 10 p.m. until midnight for you night owls.) The Dirty Dozen taco deal — 12 old-school tacos for just $25 — is a bargain. All in all, you can eat and drink well here for a surprisingly modest price.
Take-home message? El Rey is as reliable as ever — now you can enjoy it a little more often and try a few new things without breaking the bank. Do save room for dessert.