Garden Market
449 Northe 10th St.
Santa Paula
$.99 – $4.99

In a time when everyone loves to throw around the word authentic, Victor Almazan, owner of the Garden Market in Santa Paula, seems wary of such labels. Though many might dub his enchiladas authentic and his chile rellenos the best in the area, Almazan puts it like this: “We’re a small, humble business just trying to put out good food.”

Upon the persistent urging of a friend, I recently stopped into the Garden Market to pick up some takeout. Ever since then, I keep coming up with excuses to head back to Santa Paula and get another fix. This intriguing little market sits on a modest corner on 10th Street, smack dab in a quiet little neighborhood. From the outside you would never know that it produces some of the best Mexican food you can find.

When you enter the market and wend your way past the meat counter, beer cooler and rows of groceries to the cocina, you’ll find a group of women hard at work behind the counter and a row of steam trays. The menu is listed on the wall above. Burritos, tacos and enchiladas can be filled with options like lengua (or tongue), chile verde and nopales (or cactus).

Over the course of the past few weeks, I’ve worked my way through the menu with the help of some hungry friends. By far, my favorite is the chile relleno, which you can order as a combo plate or rolled up in a burrito. A fresh pasilla chile is filled with jack cheese, dipped in batter, and fried in vegetable oil. The breading is crisp and golden brown, the pepper soft with only a little kick, and the cheese thick and decadent. It is so good that it doesn’t need sauce or salsa; and the first bite will stop you dead in your tracks. When it is wrapped in a burrito, it takes on yet another identity — the cheese, chile and breading are all compressed and rolled up with rice and beans, making for bite after bite of glee. Though it is a bit greasy, it’s good greasy for sure.

What I love about the Garden Market burritos is that even though they are full and hearty, they don’t fall apart when you unwrap them or bite into them. We tried one with shredded barbecue beef, which Almazan says is the market’s claim to fame. The meat was tender, saucy, smoky and sweet, all at the same time. Having heard that some customers order the vegetarian burrito with tri-tip, on another visit we did the same. What distinguishes this veggie burrito is that it is filled with broccoli and shredded carrots — items you don’t often find in a burrito. Though adding the tri-tip negates the whole vegetarian thing, it did add a nice contrast. We ordered it with onion, cilantro, salsa and sour cream, but next time I may try it with barbecue sauce instead.

Nachos, tortas, tostadas and hard and soft tacos are also on the menu. We ordered one soft taco with lengua and another with the pork al pastor. Both came sprinkled with chopped onion and cilantro, and our choice of salsa on the side. The lengua was super-soft and moist, and though some compare lengua to the taste and texture of brisket, I found it to be tenderer than brisket. The pastor, on the other hand, was crumbly and spicy, a great counterpart to the mild lengua.

Almazan says that when his customers come through the door, he doesn’t want them to have to wait too long for their food, and he likes the fact that they can see into the open kitchen. “People want to see how their food is being made,” he says. And this window into the food prep also allows customers to see how others are ordering their food (like adding the tri-tip to the vegetarian burrito).

There’s no need to be shy at the Garden Market, because the cooks will welcome your creations and custom orders. Who knows, your burrito idea might even make it onto the menu. That’s how the chile relleno burrito got its start.

Because there are only a few seats available out on the sidewalk, Almazan says that customers started asking for the chile relleno in a burrito, making it easier to eat on the run.

If you happen to get your food to go, as most customers do, don’t despair. It will still be delicious when you get to your final destination. The Garden Market also does catering and takes tamale orders during the holidays. It opens at 8 a.m. so you can create your own breakfast burrito filled with nopales, chorizo or any other meat. Be sure to check out the meat counter as well, where you’ll find marinated carne asada, homemade sausages (like sweet Italian and jalapeno cheddar) and other goodies to throw on the grill.

Next time I find myself heading to Santa Paula for another fix, I think I might try the enchiladas, or see if they’ll chop up my chile relleno and put it in a hard shell taco. Or maybe I’ll dream up something else while I’m waiting in line.