La Parilla    
100 N. Ashwood Ave.

If there is one thing that Ventura County lacks in the world of cuisine, it is an abundance of choices in unadulterated ethnic fare. As I found out last year when orchestrating the first local flavor-trip-around-the-world fundraiser, there are just a limited number of restaurants that haven’t modified their menus to be more American-friendly. And by modify, I mean cut back on the spices and heat and break down their native dishes with the blandest of ingredients. No offense to Americans who prefer that or to the restaurateurs who do it, but some of us are looking for the good stuff that will take us to another destination. Fortunately, I found yet another hidden gem of authentic ethnic food — and Yucatan at that: La Parilla off Ashwood Avenue in Ventura.

Recommended by friends and family, I was eager to see what this place was about. Located in the College Square Shopping Center — a strip mall that has come under scrutiny for a few not-so-family-friendly tenants — La Parilla is kind of the oddball in this shopping district. Now a year old, it is a modest establishment, the walls painted bright yellow and orange, adorned with pictures of landmarks in Yucatan, Mexico, and Mexican music playing over the speakers. Sure, the owner could hang maracas and sombreros on the wall, but as far as I know, having visited Mexico numerous times, less is more. It’s all about the food.

With a very small staff — one of which is owner and chef Victor Lopez, 44, of Muna, Yucatan — the service was fair enough, with the server promptly delivering chips and salsa and beverages. (Getting a glass of water, though, proved to be somewhat of a task.) On the Friday evening we visited La Parilla, the chips were warm and the salsa roja was easy to eat — a mild tangy tomato purée with various spices, though at one point one bite knocked my socks off. The homemade guacamole was creamy but a little bland. We kicked it up a notch with a decent helping of El Yucateco (salsa picante de chile habanero). After perusing the menu, we made our decision — ethnic all the way, despite such options as buffalo wings and cobb salad. Our choices: cochinita pibil, panuchos, salbutes and vaporcitos.

The order by which my companions and I enjoyed our meal: first the vaporcitos, otherwise known as Yucatan tamales. I have to admit — I was not looking forward to this dish. I am a native Southern Californian and Venturan; I grew up eating homemade tamales with the best of them. But I never liked them. Mealy, mushy, it just never worked for me. But vaporcitos. Wow. Corn meal is mixed into masa (dough) bordering on what could be corn meal crepe, with inside a simple but delicious filling of moist, tender shredded chicken and pork, seasoned with achiote, a smoky red spice, topped with a light tomato sauce and cheese, then steamed in a banana leaf. Fantastic, authentic, worth coming back just for those. And at $3 each a la carte, it doesn’t cost much to fill up.

Next, the cochinita pibil and salbutes. They rank second in the meal, both equally good in some ways and not so good in others. The salbute can be likened to a minitostada or an open-face crunchy taco: fried, fluffy crispy tortillas topped with lettuce, shredded chicken breast, pickled red onions and avocado. The crispy texture of the tortilla was preferable, but the chicken was rather dry and the sliver of avocado did nothing to help that. But with a good dousing of salsa, it was good enough, like ordering a plate of nachos: You may not write home about it but it works for a Mexican cuisine craving. The cochinita pibil: What a dish that was. Pork rubbed with achiote, spices, salt and marinated in sour orange juice, then wrapped in a banana leaf and slow-roasted for several hours. It comes with rice and beans. The catch — it’s fairly salty for the American palate. As hard as I tried to dig my way through it, I guess that I just wasn’t hungry enough to go the distance. The next day, it was perfect with eggs for breakfast. Delicious with beans and some pico de gallo for lunch. I would order it again, surely, now that my taste buds are better prepared.

My least favorite of the meal was the panuchos. While the menu boasts that they are something that really shouldn’t be missed, I suppose it takes a more culturally tuned palate. They were basically the same exact dish as the salbutes but instead of crispy corn tortillas they were corn tortillas filled with black beans, which didn’t do much for texture in the fryer. In fact, they weren’t crispy at all; if there was a fitting word, it would be stale. But that isn’t to say other people won’t like it. As much as I would like to think I am a true ethnic foodie, my talk may be a bit bigger than my walk. But at $3 each, I recommend trying one. It may have just been a fluke that night.

A fine end to the meal, one thing none of my companions could take their hands off of as I took pictures for this review, was the irresistible plate of perfectly crispy churros, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. I requested a wheelbarrow to roll us out of the restaurant but the server said that it was in the shop. (I jest.) In conclusion, go. I highly recommend going. Places like La Parilla give Americans a real sense of what food is like in other countries and we shouldn’t deny ourselves such experiences. And tell Victor to keep up the good work.