I first ventured to Margarita Villa on the advice of one of its former waitresses, who told me that I could find one of the best mojitos in the area at this second-story sanctuary in the Ventura Harbor. Deciding to make a night of it, my friend Stacey and I sat down for a good bit of Mexican food and one of the better margaritas Stacey had ever ordered.
After I had my first satisfying sips of the mojito (fresh mint, good rum), Stacey and I discussed the many genres of Mexican cuisine throughout Southern California: Tex Mex and California fusion, to name a couple. As I tried to pin down how exactly Margarita Villa could be branded, Stacey joyfully took note of the music — not the mariachi hits normally heard in such a restaurant, but what she fondly called “white boy rock” (think REO Speedwagon, Cheap Trick, a touch of Bob Seger). After the so-so salsa that came with our chips, the music became indicative of the kind of food we could expect.
Stacey opted for nachos, which she would later call “a veritable cornucopia of greasy goodness heaped high upon my plate, which seemed to be bottomless, considering that the serving could have fed a family of eight for two weeks.” But when judging the authenticity of a Mexican meal, nachos are a difficult bellwether, because great nachos — and they were great — are hardly a compliment to the chef.
My chicken fajitas, however, were more telling (I do realize that fajitas are themselves the result of fusion Mexican cuisine; at this point I was judging on the basis of the Southwestern flavor).
I had no complaints about my order. The sizzling platter of poultry and vegetable hit the spot, but I had to examine why I merely felt satisfied. I realized the food reminded me of my own intrepid ventures into Mexican (or Tex-Mex) cooking, when all the essential ingredients are in place but something key — a spice, a kick of flavor — is missing. In my case, I unconsciously give some kind of vanilla treatment to whatever I cook, hence my fondness for dining reviews. The effect at Margarita Villa wasn’t so bad, but with all the elements that were in place (a kick-ass view, friendly wait staff, fabulous bar) I was surprised the food wasn’t more on the “extraordinary” side of good.
Stacey, however, had a different take. “The truth is that, in California, there are all kinds of different Mexican foods,” she explained to me. “Some is Tex-Mex, some is California Cuisine. Whatever brand this was, it was good.”
A few nights later, while around the harbor after-hours, the sweet sounds of an amateur but heartfelt rendition of “Miss American Pie” emanated from the second story of that beautiful margarita beacon, and I reconsidered my assessment of the place. The spinach Florentine enchiladas are, I hear, divine, and when you’ve got at least one amazing dish to boast, and a full bar of dependable tequila, and a view of the slips and karaoke, you’ve just proved your right to exist as a late-night destination.