Amigos Surf Cantina
546 E. Main St.

When Amigos Surf Cantina opened in Downtown Ventura across from the movie theater, it was a welcome addition. While there are Mexican restaurants around the downtown area, none resemble what it seems most Americans love best — a sit-down restaurant with complimentary chips and salsa, a full bar and hearty Mexican food. So last May when it opened, I began my journey in exploring the food and the overall experience.

The space that Amigos occupies really makes it unique, with the patio ideal for people watching and for those who just enjoy sitting outside — a fairly rare option in downtown Ventura, especially a patio where patrons can drink alcoholic beverages. Inside, it’s a little foreboding, dark and industrial, but the beach art screams California and, for sports fans, there are plenty of televisions to keep you up-to-the-minute on the latest plays.

For the last year and a half, one thing I simply can’t resist is the salsa bar and the fried multicolored corn tortillas that one has to break apart to make into chips. I remember feeling a little disappointed when it first opened that the house salsa was so bland — it seemed as though it was just tomatoes thrown into a food processor. I never really said anything about it, but apparently the chef or the owner figured it out and ta-da! A slightly smoky creation with just enough acidity and saltiness to keep you coming back for more. With about eight salsas or so to choose from, from the creamy, spicy avocado creation, coined “avotillote,” to the tangy tomatillo cilantro, and the sting of the habanero salsa, it is easy to get caught up in all the intense flavor sensations while leaving little room for anything else. So don’t. Just try a little at a time and give the menu a shot.

For one of my first meals there on a rather chilly day after a late night, I had to go for the pozole, a rich meaty broth with pork and hominy, served with lime, onions and cilantro. It had a certain kind of earthy flavor that brought me back to my days living in Baja. While too many Americans enjoy the watered-down version of most ethnic foods, this soup satisfied my cravings for comfort food with an Ensenada feel.

My next time around, I indulged in the chile relleno burrito. And when I say indulged, I really mean it. Mind you, I am a sucker for good chips and salsa, so I already had my demons coming between me and my lunch. After an emotional and messy experience making my own chile relleno, I was happy to try someone else’s — and wrapped up as a burrito. REALLY? How could I resist. The chile relleno burrito came with refried beans, rice, pico de gallo and a battered and fried chile relleno, wrapped in a tortilla then grilled. So this is how it goes: first you notice the slightly crunchy tortilla followed by the richness of the beans, the fluffiness of the rice, the tang and fresh flavor of the pico and then, of course, the combination of the thick green chili, melting jack cheese, the battered crust. It’s really everything good about Mexican food wrapped in a tortilla … but I wouldn’t recommend it on a daily basis lest you want your doctor on your case. For those who want to indulge and treat themselves well — or at least their taste buds — go for it, but perhaps share it with a friend?

A few weeks later, I gave the carnitas soft tacos a try. Carnitas, by definition, isn’t glamorous but rather simply, braised or roasted pork. And that’s what I got. Loose pieces of pork wrapped in a soft flour tortilla topped with pico de gallo, and on the side was a bowl of refried beans. Given that most refried beans I have tried are thick and pasty, this bowl of soupy beans with the apparent flavor of smoky bacon overtones was a bit of a surprise, but that didn’t stop me from eating them and also adding them to my tacos. While I was mulling over my choice for lunch that day, perhaps a good alternative would have been the street tacos, $1 each. The man sitting next to me gobbled them up and only complained that he likes salsa that makes his tongue get to the point of nearly blistering, and then went on to describe how his tongue had been blistered before at other places. My only thought, I like my tongue in one piece when I leave a restaurant.

For my most recent adventure at Amigos, I thought I’d go with what I thought would be a lighter, healthier route with the taco salad. It comes served in a fried shell, puffed out like a delicious Mexican donut, with lettuce, tomatoes, crushed chips, thick and savory spicy carne asada and pinto beans. As I worked my way through the salad, at each layer I’d throw on a different salsa, or mix up a few, and some ranch dressing here and there. It was delicious.

In all my experiences, fulfilling or just satisfactory, the one thing that sticks out is the people who work there. Now, mind you, lunch service can be a little slow, but that’s OK. The staff will keep you entertained with conversation. The nighttime music acts, I hear, are when things really getting going. It’s definitely worth a visit for some margaritas and local talent. And if you go for the food, don’t say I didn’t warn you — be prepared and wear that looser pair of jeans.