Chapala Mexican Restaurant
245 S. 10th St.
Santa Paula

Memories fill my mind over the many trips I made as a kid to visit La Familia Diaz, which always included a bowl of abondigas soup. It always felt warm and family-friendly, something that is still hard to forget. Flash-forward 30 or so years, and the founding owners of Familia Diaz sold the business after 80 years, in January 2016, and out of that came Chapala Mexican Restaurant (Chapala, a city in the central Mexican state of Jalisco, is located on the north shore of Lake Chapala). On a Saturday night, prior to taking in a live acoustic guitar set by Hiroya Tsukamoto at Universalist Unitarian Church in Santa Paula, we decided to give Chapala a try.

Tacos de sada with guacamole, pico de gallo and a charred jalapeno

Walking in, not much has changed from my childhood memories. The décor is in dark browns and tans, a tile floor accented by rustic chandeliers and Mexican art, plus flat screens to keep up with current sports games. The booth cushions felt new, given how firm they were. Upon seating came complimentary chips and salsa, my favorite part of eating out at a sit-down Mexican-food restaurant. Given my propensity to devour with gusto spicy salsa, my companions were not prepared for the Thunder Dome fight to the death for the last spoonful. Thankfully, the servers sensed the tension and did not leave us (me) hanging.

Chile verde with rice, beans and charred jalapeno

For dinner, we chose the siete mares (seafood and vegetable soup), tacos de camarones (grilled shrimp tacos), tacos de asada (steak tacos) and the chile verde meal. For my choice, I wasn’t quite prepared for the adventure I was about to go on, but I would never have turned down the opportunity.

As our food arrived and we all dug in, the level of satisfaction varied. The shrimp tacos were a simple preparation, served on corn tortillas with lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and creamy taco sauce, plus a side salad with large slices of cucumber. The dish was just fine, but not quite an daring choice.

The tacos de asada were similar, but the tender bits of skirt steak, marinated just enough to enhance the flavor a bit — I was reminded of A-1 sauce — were clearly prepared with care. My companion gobbled up the whole dish without giving me much time to grab a bite.

Tacos de camarones

The chile verde with flaky moist chunks of pork, in a warm tomatillo sauce, was delicious. The charred jalapeño had an unexpected sweat producing bite. Next my journey into siete mares, or seven seas.

Now this is the third place I have had this dish. I very much enjoyed the other times, so surely I would again. And while I did here, every place makes the siete mares differently. I was in for a big surprise.

As I dug in, the obvious culprits appeared: red and yellow peppers, celery, white fish, octopus, potatoes, carrots, shrimp with heads still on and baby pea-sized scallops. The chayote was a nice touch. The small bits of crab legs served to be a bit of a nuisance, as I couldn’t figure out if I should eat them whole or crack them or throw them away, but I struck something hard near the top: a massive clam. There was no way to detect this thing hanging out in my soup, but it surely came as a total surprise, especially its sheer size.

Upon removing the clam from its shell, I was a bit overwhelmed both by its size, which filled my whole mouth, and the fact that it was super-briny. I felt as if I had just wrestled it from the sea floor and was eating it while I was swimming around. If you like clams, this soup will really make you happy. For me, it was all about the journey (so many flavors and textures), not the destination (finishing the whole big bowl).

Chapala Mexican Restaurant does go beyond traditional Mexican fare, offering an assortment of enchiladas, including enchiladas de mole, which caught my eye on the way in at another table, and fish dishes such as grilled salmon with three shrimp on a pineapple disk and diced mango salsa, and the mahi mahi veracruzano.

Whether you are up for traditional dishes or something more exotic, Chapala surely has something worth trying out, and not just hoarding all the chips and salsa from your companions.