PICTURED: Marina Cafe chicken tacos with salad and beans. Photo by Dean Johnson

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

nshaffer@timespublications.com

Marina Cafe at Lake Casitas
11311 Santa Ana Road, Ventura
805-649-2514
www.facebook.com/lakecasitasmarinacafe
$3-16


Marina Cafe is not the kind of place you’d stumble upon. It’s smack-dab in the middle of the Lake Casitas Recreation Area, for one thing. And it’s right next to the bait shop and boat rental place. Easy to miss, even easier to write it off as a rustic little snack shop.

You’d be very, very wrong.

Locals know that some of the best views of Lake Casitas can be had here, either outside on the shady patio or inside in the dining room, with air conditioning (a real relief in the summer months) and large windows that provide an excellent vantage point. With natural vegetation all around, the mountains in the distance and a chorus of birdsong and crickets, it’s an incredibly tranquil spot for breakfast and lunch.

Mimosa with a lakeside view at Marina Cafe. Photo by N. Lackey Shaffer

The views and ambience aren’t the only reason to come here, though. With a decent selection of beers on tap (such as Lagunitas, Topa Topa Brewing and Institution Ale Company) and in the bottle or can (Modelo, Stella Artois, Fat Tire, amongst others) as well as wine and mimosas, it’s a wonderful, low-key spot to wet your whistle. And while this is not a fancy cafe, by any stretch of the imagination, it’s clean and bright and comfortable, with roomy vinyl booths and a few tables. The boat hanging from the ceiling is a charming touch.

So, plenty to recommend it, without even mentioning the food. But the food really does this place proud: Mexican and American cuisine, all homemade.

The day we went for an early lunch (after picking the kids up from the wonderful Casitas Rowing summer camp), the friendly person at the counter noted that we were lucky — the electricity had gone out that morning, but it came on in time to cool the restaurant off prior to our arrival. 

“I guess you were closed all morning?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” she replied. “We were still serving. We don’t use microwaves.”

It’s not a big crew in the kitchen, but they whip up an impressive selection of omelets and egg dishes, burgers, sandwiches, tacos, enchiladas, burritos and more. Hearty, simple and — as we soon discovered — very tasty.

Burgers and fries are like a siren song for our boys. My husband and I decided to give the Mexican food a try, with chicken tacos for him and a chile verde plate for me. Mexican orders include beans and rice; as the rice was still being prepared, we substituted fresh green salad and hash browns. And because we were quite hungry, we started with an order of chicken nachos for the table.

It seemed like the nachos came out almost immediately, still sizzling a bit with the fry oil. They were topped with beans and cheese, and lots and lots of shredded chicken (cooked with tomatoes, garlic and onions). A delicious mountain which we failed to summit; we ended up taking home some nacho leftovers.

Marina Cafe burger and fries. Photo by N. Lackey Shaffer

As far as burgers go, these were more than respectable — basic but well prepared, and plenty juicy, with all the fixings. The fries were great, too, cut thick and coming to the table piping hot and very crispy. If you’re looking for standard American fare, Marina Cafe will set you up.

But the star here, really, is the Mexican food. Those nachos were an amuse bouche for the tacos, which were fried crisp (no store-bought shells here!) and heaped with more of that savory chicken, as well as cheese, tomatoes and lots of greens. The beans on the side were mellow and creamy — made with lard, I’d guess. Altogether, it was a simple, filling and tasty meal with a home-cooked feel. The zippy salsa was very fresh; I suspect it was made in house as well.

It’s true that the chile verde was on the thinner side; more of a soup than a stew. Quite good nevertheless and full of flavor — lots of citrus thanks to hunks of tomatillo and, I’m guessing, fresh lime. The cubed pork was cooked to tender perfection. The hash browns on the side were excellent — nice and crispy on the outside, delicate on the inside — and complemented the chile verde and beans beautifully. I like rice just fine, but I’d take hash browns with a meal like this any day.

I’ve no doubt that campers, anglers, boaters and others who recreate at Lake Casitas have discovered the pleasures of Marina Cafe. As for the rest of us . . . it’s worth the trek! There are a handful of free two-hour parking spots at the entrance to the recreation area (it’s about a 10 minute walk from there to the cafe), or you can ask for a complimentary Marine Cafe pass at the gate and drive in. Come for a home-cooked meal and a nice view, stay for a hike around the lake and some bird watching. It’s a great way to spend a few genuinely delicious hours in one of Ventura County’s most scenic and peaceful spots.