Taqueria El Charro
445 Ventura Ave.
Living in Ventura, there is no shortage of Mexican food; being a native of San Diego, though — and a frequent Baja California traveler basically obsessed with its taquerias and street stands — the 805 sometimes leaves an empty spot in my belly when it comes to simple, flavorful tacos, burritos and tortas.
Hiding behind beans and rice is easy. Wrapping layers of bland ingredients with a jumbo tortilla and hoping the ounce of hot sauce provided injects a pound of flavor into the enveloped, jumbalayan mess, for example, is just going through the motions. To stand out in the cramped taqueria game, it has to be all about the meats — the quality, the cuts, and how you marinade, season and prepare the fare.
Steet tacos. Photo by: Ryan Breyer-Smith
Situated in a front corner of the Ojai Valley Ranch Market (formerly Dahl’s Market) in Oak View, Taqueria El Charro will not win any awards for best signage or prettiest dining room. A narrow kitchen hides behind a hung lineup of childishly handwritten, oversized menus in red, green, pink and blue, stuffed behind the meat cases, allowing room for maybe two people to cook and dress plates. But true taco shop aficionados will quickly dismiss a complete lack of vanity if the food is consistently good.
Inside the market and facing the counter, the first thing noticed are the rows of finely butchered, raw meats, mixtures and, on occasion, ceviche. A big sign states “Ojai Local Grass Fed Beef!!” Hormone- and steroid-free, pasture-raised. There are steaks and tri-tips, thick-cut pork chops, marinated chicken fajitas, house-made chorizo, artisan sausages and, of course, a few thinly sliced options for barbecuing carne asada at home. The owner, Rafa, will even season anything for you and cook it for you, if desired.
For this exercise, my wife and I ordered the chicken supreme corn burritos (aka taquitos), à la carte cheese enchiladas and the house special, “Oink & Moo” mega torta. The young attendant told me she was out of chicken taquitos for the day. No biggie, we really wanted to try their street tacos anyway.
While seated, watching through the glass case as our food grilled and plated, I could see the girl look at the finished order then back at my receipt, telling the cook in Spanish the mega torta was missing. Apologetic, she smiled and handed me a huge bag of homemade tortilla chips, pointed me to the salsa bar, and told me it would just be a few more minutes.
A few of those fresh, crispy chips, dunked in El Charro’s chunky, nicely constructed tomatillo salsa immediately quelled my uneasiness as we waited for the delayed torta. A proper green sauce blend is always a great start when sourcing new taco shops.
Plates were soon laid on our table. We each grabbed a street taco. “Mmmmm,” murmured my wife, still chewing her first bite, with tiny, doubled corn tortillas filled with chicken, cilantro and onion still in her right hand. Now, my wife has been a vegetarian for 20-plus years, but has just recently started dipping back into the world of meat eating again, and she does not really like chicken (yet). But she loved these tacos. Tender little chunks of white breast meat seasoned and grilled just right. Simple as it gets. I have a feeling we will be ordering these often, along with everything else they make with chicken.
Unfortunately for the al pastor street tacos, they had to follow the chicken’s performance, and only high 9s would have kept them in the game. A decent rendition of one of my all-time favorite Mexican delicacies, sure, but nothing exceptionally memorable here. Let’s be real; the only way to properly make al pastor is on a slow-spinning, vertical barbecue spit with pineapple up top, carving off the wonderfully burnt edges of pork and fruit into a tortilla-laced hand.
The cheese enchiladas were for my wife, one of her staple orders at untested Mexican spots. Well-put-together, nicely portioned, not drowning in too much red sauce, my wife looked up with a nod of approval after a few bites, later insisting I mention how El Charro smartly puts the lettuce aside the sauce, not on top, thus keeping it crisp and not limp. The à-la-carte plate also came with a dollop of sour cream and a generous scoop of delectable housemade guacamole.
The finale was the massive “Oink & Moo” mega torta — a house specialty. Any torta sandwich connoisseur will tell you: It begins and ends with the bread, literally. Roll choice is critical. The foundation, of course. It must be toasted just enough, with an ease of bite-through-ability, soft yet never soggy. Bolillo and telera rolls are most common, but El Charro’s torta gives a nod to the sandwich’s European influence and utilizes a foot -long (if it’s not 14 inches) artisan French roll. Often, the second half of a lesser, 6-inch torta can fall apart due to poor structural integrity. Here, this French torta roll is a finely chosen vessel, carrying tons of savory, chopped meats balanced under fresh trimmings (lettuce, tomato, avocado and jalapeños) right into the Port of Flavor Town. The Oink (chorizo) and Moo (carne asada steak) was something new for me, and they went together wonderfully. Both meats played off each other’s distinct textures and tastes. I dropped my elbows into position and went for it all.
After finally saying “Tio Tio!” to the size of the mega torta and placing the remainder back on the plate, I smiled as I wrapped it in foil, knowing we were due for a concluding, late-night date.