La Fuente Restaurant
423 E. Ojai Ave.
La Fuente Mexican Grille
107 E. El Roblar Drive
This cozy, family-owned Mexican restaurant at the back of a small strip mall, with a few tables out front, is known for its tamales, homemade corn tortillas and basic inexpensive Mexican fare, all prepared by the hardworking ladies in the kitchen. With parking at a premium, this inexpensive Ojai favorite is one of two La Fuentes owned by the Vegas family. The downtown Ojai one is run by Yolanda; her sister runs La Fuente Mexican Grille in Meiners Oaks.
Order at the counter, grab a soda out of the case, fill your paper cup with horchata or Jamaica out of a drink dispenser or order a cerveza. Soon, your dishes will appear at a small window off the kitchen, where the casual seating area is decorated in the colors of the Mexican flag. There might be a telenovela or sports blaring from the TV (depending on who gains control of the clicker), and a small altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe adds to the ambience.
I went with two friends: Anne, a longtime Ojai resident/vegetarian was our major “tamale tester”; and my Carpinteria neighbor Michael, who is apparently a human garbage disposal.
We ordered a huge amount of food — and there were still lots of menu items to try— menudo or pozole listed on the special Sunday chalkboard menu out front or grilled cactus (nopales) and tasty-sounding breakfast items.
La Fuente is known and loved for its tamales. The hands-down winner in the tamal department was the delicious saffron/orangey-colored, sweet pineapple version. The masa was excellent — not too heavy — as were the mild green and spicy red salsas. The corn tamal (also slightly sweet) came in a strong second; the cheese and chili was also an “Anne’s choice” and great for vegetarians — all the tamales (chicken, pork) were packed with plenty of filling. La Fuente sells anywhere from 400 to 700 tamales a week (of the seven varieties), but 3,000 during the Christmas holidays.
Chiles rellenos and a chicken enchilada with a tangy green sauce were standard California/Mexican restaurant fare — pretty straightforward and what you’d expect from a typical Southern California/Mexican restaurant like the ones where I grew up eating. The fish taco was terrific — a generous piece of fish (tilapia, I assume) with hearty chunks of avocado. The huarache (a tortilla shaped like the bottom of the sandals of the same name) stood out — stuffed with black beans and, in our case, topped with a generous portion of carnitas. Guacamole and chips did not disappoint, although I’ve had better sopes than the one we tried — I would have liked more lettuce and cheese and it could have used a dollop of sour cream, which is available as a side.
La Fuente has been a somewhat under-the-radar Ojai fixture for seven years; the Vegas family menu is based on traditional Mexico City street food with strong Aztec influences.
Anne rang in with her own assessment:
“Generally speaking, La Fuente is a spot to drop in for a tamale, which seems to be the specialty. The star of the show — the pineapple tamale — is a real treat that must be saved for dessert! The ambience is cluttered and noisy with the ambient TV, but if it’s your thing to watch the hockey game while dining, this is your spot. Despite Michael rating the food at 6.5 (out of 10), he licked the plate on absolutely every dish! … An easy to heat-up feast. …There’s a good idea!”
After so much food, we needed to work off some of the calories, so Michael (who is a climbing guide) and I (after dropping Anne back at her tranquil Ojai home) went to the Taft Gardens for a stroll and to admire the succulents and Australian plants in bloom. It was peaceful and lush and the perfect place to digest our meal.