El Tecolote
333 N. Lewis Road
Camarillo
482-4318
$1.95-$17.95

In a world that has succumbed to cheap fast food, it is refreshing to know that places like El Tecolote still exist. While some would prefer to wait in drive-thru lines for their favorite Mexican dishes, this Camarillo restaurant is rich in history and boasts authentic filling meals from south of the border.

On the corner of Lewis Road and Barry Street, El Tecolote abides in an older Spanish architectural style building. But it wasn’t always so, as El Tecolote, aka The Owl, has a colorful past, making a meal there that much more interesting.

According to legend, in 1946, Moorpark resident Mike Loza was desperate to find a job after the war. At the time, jobs were scarce so he decided to start his own business making Mexican food. The night before he opened the storefront, he barricaded himself inside his new restaurant with a shotgun in hand to ensure no one would spoil the grand opening the next day.

That night, he couldn’t sleep as owls in the surrounding trees were making themselves known. But Mexican folklore says owls are bad omens. Instead of giving up his dream, Loza decided to name his restaurant with the Spanish word for owl. A couple of years later, he relocated to Camarillo, just a few blocks from where the restaurant sits today. The business had become extremely successful, to the point that one of his customers became frustrated enough at waiting in line that he helped finance a new building for Loza, and El Tecolote moved to its current location. Nearly 10 years later, El Tecolote expanded to include the large dining room in the rear of the restaurant.

Picturing Loza with a shotgun in his hand, listening to the foreboding hoots of ominous owls outside, makes everything a little richer. And so it went for my first time at El Tecolote.

If there is any way to describe the ambience of this restaurant, the best way is perhaps no-frills-or-thrills meets sports bar. With the exception of a cascading waterfall in the back of the cabin-like addition, the restaurant is homegrown, with vintage owl pictures on the walls, small booths, and rows of tables in the back for big parties.

Suffice it to say, there is nothing pretentious about this place.

2When my companion and I were seated, a bowl of chips and salsa came moments later. We ordered iced tea and grapefruit juice — yes, grapefruit juice for all those tart lovers out there — and bean dip to start. For our entrees, I ordered chamorro, a pork dish with the bone still in the meat. My companion ordered the chicken El Tecolote.

While I couldn’t stay away from the chips and tangy, mild salsa, I felt that the bean dip topped with melting cheese needed something more. I am used to a denser dip, while this one was a little too soupy for my palate. The pico de gallo and sour cream also disappeared into the dish. Nevertheless, the bean dip, with a little Tabasco, was devoured over the course of the meal.

This is where vegans and vegetarians need to tune out, because, over the course of the last few weeks, I haven’t been able to get my mind off this tasty dish. Hi. My name is Michael and I love meat. While chamorro is traditionally known as an island dish, using beef, chicken or pork, El Tecolote’s version is worth the drive, from wherever you are coming.

The chef bakes a pork thigh for more than an hour in a blend of special Mexican spices. The meat, tender and moist, falls right off the bone. The chamorro isn’t for dainty eaters as I had my fill at lunch, and my son and I ate the leftovers for dinner. As for the recipe, I tried prying the information out of the servers, to no avail. I guess that is all for the best as it will keep me coming back for more and I won’t get frustrated should I fail to replicate the dish.

Though it isn’t on the menu, the dish is featured daily. It comes with a choice of corn or flour tortillas, refried beans, rice, guacamole and lettuce.

Due to an unfortunate set of circumstances — a bellyful up to my eyeballs — I was simply unable to try to the chicken El Tecolote, which is a chicken breast covered with special sauce, chopped tomatoes and green onions, served with a side of refried beans, rice and a choice of tortillas. My companion didn’t leave a bite on the plate, so that must be a good sign. He did say, though, that he would be up for trying something different next time around.

The real kicker here is the diverse menu and offering of daily specials. From a top sirloin quesadilla for an appetizer to chicken Monterrey (chicken breast smothered in jack and cheddar cheeses topped with mild green chilies) to spinach enchiladas, there is something for everyone. The a la carte and combination menus, as well as the specials, are something to behold, and for dessert, not in the mood for flan? Order the funfetti cake or carrot cake. El Tecolote also features 18 different 100 percent blue agave tequilas, perfect for margaritas — regular, strawberry, mango, melon or even pomegranate.

And for big breakfast eaters, stop by sometime and dig into one of the traditional Mexican breakfasts.

As I am certain to return soon to get my fill of chamorro again, I recommend checking out El Tecolote. The servers are friendly, the food is tasty and filling, and if you want to watch a game on a t.v., there are plenty to spare.

michael@vcreporter.com