Marina Cafe and Snack Bar
Lake Casitas
11311 Santa Ana Road

($15 entrance fee waived with purchase at cafe)

The main reason I enjoy driving to Lake Casitas near Ojai and paying $15 for a day pass to explore what’s left of the lake (due to our five-year drought) is to watch the iridescent blue-green dragonflies dance all around me, search for the huge eagle’s nest, view birdlife and delight in the all-American panorama of campers enjoying our great outdoors. The other reason is to have a hearty breakfast or lunch at the Marina Cafe – where the $15 entrance fee is subtracted from a very reasonable bill (about $10+ per person). The cafe, with both casual indoor and outdoor seating, overlooks the meadows and water and whatever is going on at the time, with the lovely mountainscape as a backdrop.

It’s a great place to sit, relax and, well, just watch the clouds roll by. But nature lovers who come here to fish, bird watch, take walks and perhaps journal, cannot live by butterflies and the sweet smell of native grass alone.

View of Lake Casitas from the patio.

View of Lake Casitas from the patio.

One late Saturday morning, a very hungry friend and I took a drive to the lake.  We entered the simple wooden building, sashayed up and ordered at the counter. Customers find a spot inside (where the décor is beer-sign paraphernalia mixed with old photos of local birdlife) or outside at one of the plastic tables and chairs on the covered deck or patio. Several long picnic tables and benches sit under the shade of a stately California oak tree.

I ordered my first-ever chicken fried steak with two perfectly poached eggs, and discovered what I had been missing all these years. The batter was light and crispy and not at all greasy. There were hash browns vs. home fries with onions to choose from — I wisely chose the second, since the young man at the counter said they’d “go well with the gravy.” He was right. The home fries had nice hard, thick crunchy edges just the way I like ’em and topped off the meal, served with toast (an English muffin in this case). My fellow diner and I also ordered the huevos rancheros, where the super-tasty refried beans with melted jack and cheddar cheese outshone the ranchera sauce (a bit mild for both our liking). Fortunately, we also ordered the chile verde to go — but ended up digging into and devouring most of it. This is the real winner here. (There was a little leftover messy sauce to take home, but we refrained). The flavors from the green tomatillos, spices and chiles were balanced with just the right amount of spiciness. This, we decided would have been a preferred sauce with the huevos. Chips are hot and crispy. Bread is so-so, better to go with corn or flour tortillas all around.

There are burgers, burritos and other items on the Mexican and all-American cafe menu. In summer months, it opens for dinner and serves tri-tip from the giant grill in back. Dessert is limited to popsicles or ice-cream bars out of a freezer case. There is wine by the glass, plus beer and soda pops.

The same family has run the Marina Cafe and Snack Shop, as it’s known, for the past 14 years. They cater to campers (who usually stop in for their last meal before heading home after having packed up all their gear) as well as locals who seek a quick escape in a quiet, natural setting. No rock and roll music here to annoy. Just the sounds of Mother Nature — and on my recent visit, the coxswain echoing across the lake, urging rowers along the water surface.

We stopped at the counter to compliment the chef on his chile verde. Chef/owner Carlos Hernandez can be seen working in the open kitchen wearing a crisp white chef jacket. I mentioned something about pico de gallo (my father’s favorite salsa) and he said we could request it if we wanted — he makes the fresh tomato, onion, cilantro salsa on the spot.

I asked Carlos how business has been since the lake level has dropped so drastically. He admitted it’s been much slower — and that whatever happens at the park entrance gate directly affects his business. He then cheerfully suggested we go to the end of the road to see the huge eagle nest with its young. We accidently drove way beyond, a happy mistake. We bumped down narrow roads, both paved and of dirt, marveled at the views, watched children play, led by the magical dragonflies while hawks and vultures soared overhead. We retraced our route and did finally find the gigantic, amazing nest, but no eagles on this visit, so I will have to return and hope for better luck next time.

Our tummies were full, our hearts and souls satisfied where nature and hearty eats make for a perfect mini-getaway from it all in our own backyard. Plus, we made it out “just a tad” over the hour and a half limit on the cafe pass, without penalty!