Taqueria Tepatitlan
362 N. Ventura Ave., Ventura
$2.25 – $12.95

Sitting quietly next to an auto body shop on the Avenue, there is nothing remarkable about the exterior of this restaurant. Plain plate glass windows, a simple sign … nothing that belies the neat little restaurant that lives inside. Once inside, the place feels familiar, like your favorite Mexican restaurant: shiny booths, colored lights, neon signs, and even old license plates and tin beer signs adorning the walls and ceiling. On one wall reads a painted message, Mi taqueria es su taqueria, and it is signed Familia Gonzalez, the proprietors. In fact, the service is so friendly and the owners so inviting, that to many in Ventura, this taqueria is simply known as Juan’s. While the word taqueria translates to taco restaurant, this restaurant is much, much more — full of traditional specials and even open for breakfast every day.

The menu reads like that of most Mexican restaurants: combination plates, burritos, tacos and enchiladas galore. But everything we tasted on two different visits to Taqueria Tepatitlan was superb. The chips and salsa that accompany each meal are clearly homemade. What distinguishes the chips is that they are thick, making a loud crunch with each bite, and not at all oily. We dipped them in fresh salsa — vibrant red, chunky, with splashes of cilantro and with just the right amount of kick — and tried not to fill up too much.

From the combination plates, we chose one with three tacos and another with a beef tamale and a chicken sope. For the taco plate, we chose three different fillings: carnitas, chorizo and the al pastor. Each sat on little corn tortillas flecked with chopped onion and cilantro. The chorizo was salty, spicy, and the dark little crumbles were like caviar — a lot of wow packed into something tiny. The al pastor — large chunks of pork in a thick red sauce — was moist and totally working for me. The carnitas — chunks of pork, fried until crispy — were flaky and moist but not too greasy.

Each of the meats was so perfect that adding salsa, sour cream or guacamole never crossed our minds.

The tamale comes enchilada-style, topped with a dark red sauce and melting cheese. The beef was spicy, and the masa wrapped around it was soothingly soft and sweet. The chicken sope is made with a thick corn tortilla (think thick and buttery corn pancake) that is topped with shredded chicken, lettuce and pico de gallo and accompanied by dollops of guacamole and sour cream. The sope was delicious enough to be eaten alone, and I found myself wondering why this little Mexican delicacy doesn’t receive more props and kudos.

The chicken flautas were another winner. A large flour tortilla is wrapped around a generous portion of shredded chicken and tomatoes, and then the whole bundle is deep-fried. The crunchy tortilla had a hint of sweetness, like that of a freshly fried doughnut, yet the chicken was savory. The crispy shell perfectly contrasted with the soft filling.

These flautas were large, like the size of a large enchilada, and two of them were more than enough. Each of the plates comes with rice and beans, either refried or full-size pintos, making for plenty of leftovers to take home.

On another visit we ordered one of the tortas, a Mexican sub sandwich made on a sweet roll and layered with refried beans, lettuce, tomato, guacamole, sour cream and carnitas. We also tried the tacos dorados, or hard shell tacos, filled with chicken and beef. The crispy shells were clearly fried while we waited, and they had that same hint of sweetness as the flautas.

In addition to a modest selection of beer and wine, diners can also sample horchata and agua de jamaica, Mexican specialties of the liquid variety. Horchata is a cinnamon-flavored rice milk (think Mexico City meets a cup of chai from Katmandu) served over ice. The agua de jamaica is a fruity tealike drink made with jamaica flowers (a member of the hibiscus family), water and sugar. Both offer the perfect sweet counterbalance to the many spicy dishes that come out of Juan’s kitchen.

Though we only ate there for lunch, the breakfast menu is tantalizing as well, full of treats like huevos rancheros and breakfast burritos. And depending on the day of the week you stop by Juan’s, you might find specials like chicken mole, diced cactus with pork, or menudo and goat soup. The food at Taqueria Tepatitlan is consistent, fresh and authentic, but what really makes this restaurant stand out is the relaxed vibe and the presence of the ever-friendly owner, Juan. Whether you call it Juan’s or Taqueria Tepatitlan, the food and the service will keep you coming back again and again.