Tlaquepaque Restaurant
120 S. Mill St., Santa Paula

When on the hunt for good Mexican food in Santa Paula, the choices seem endless. Relying on Yelp for the highest rated reviews is an interesting tactic, but I do miss word-of-mouth recommendations. It was, however, a picture of the chile relleno served in a stew of sorts that led me to Tlaquepaque. While I didn’t recognize the name or even the address at first, upon entering, I realized that I had visited many years ago — to talk to a father of a young woman who was at Todd Road Jail. The conversation was emotional so the draw was practically irresistible as I tried to conjure the details of what we talked about in the center booth back then.

As the house was practically full, my companion and I decided to get ours to go, — we were among several others who did the same one Saturday night. Stephanie, who was busy both taking orders on the floor and at the cash register, didn’t appear overwhelmed, but was friendly and courteous. She said she had worked there for the last four years, so she might indeed be a friendly face from the last time I visited.

Obviously, my priority was to order the chile relleno, a side order, but I also chose the mole poblano and a sope with carne asada. My companion ordered No. 26: two enchiladas (cheese and chicken) in red sauce and the chile relleno. He also ordered a side of carne asada street tacos. As I waited for our food, a bright pink sign for flan with drawings that looked like question marks piqued my curiosity — one flan to go. During the dinner rush, it probably took about 20 minutes to get our order.

First up, the sope, which truly is enough to be a hearty meal in itself, with fried Mexican bread covered with creamy homemade refried beans, tender asada, crisp shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes and topped with queso fresco and crema, sprinkled and drizzled. A perfect way to start a meal.

The mole poblano was rich in flavor and color, a deep brown, buttery sauce that had hint of smokiness and chocolate. The chicken was so tender it fell off the bone, not dry at all, and sprinkled in were sesame seeds. It came with a side of refried beans and Mexican rice with peas. While the meal was generally good, the grease was too much; it seemed to float on top and around the mole. I can usually work around such things, but not this time.

The carne asada street tacos and enchiladas were gobbled up faster than I could get a bite, so I can only assume that they were that good. But the pièce de résistance: the chile relleno. Well, I loved the sauce/broth, to clarify that up front. The stewed onions and green and red peppers in the warm tomato broth were comforting. The chile relleno, however, was interesting, with the fried crust saturated in the broth but the cheese a bit dense versus stringy. The poblano chile was bright green, low on the spicy scale, as is the norm. Not sure I would order it again, but the broth was surely worth a try.

As for the flan, the sweet crust of the dense, slightly crumbly custard made my mouth pucker a bit. If you are looking for rich dessert, this is one way to go. Stephanie did give me a slice from a large pan that may have been cooked a day or two before.

Reminiscing about years before, the feel of Tlaquepaque is one of a home and dedication to preparation. While not every meal is for everyone, surely there is something for anyone — it’s worth a drop-by.