PICTURED: Birria pizzadilla (with marinated beef) and beef consommé. Photo by N. Lackey Shaffer
by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
Vaquero Y Mar
435 E. Thompson Blvd., Ventura
It was with a heavy heart that we said goodbye to the iconic Hong Kong Inn some years ago. The decades-old institution, recognizable on Ventura’s Thompson Boulevard from its curved roof and retro Polynesian-style sign, was beloved as much for its faults as its virtues. The Chinese food was greasy but flavorful. The interior was shabby and dated, but spacious, with room to dance and a large music stage. Some great bands played here, and the Polynesian music and dance revue was lively, nutty, throwback entertainment. The bar poured out tropical-inspired cocktails long before the retro revival turned tiki culture into a high art form. True, these were mostly overly sweet variations on fruit punch and rum, but served in festive glassware with a rainbow of garnishes, umbrellas and flaming embellishments. In short, the Hong Kong Inn excelled in campy, unpretentious fun.
It changed hands once or twice before landing under the proprietorship of Gloria Gonzalez in early 2020 . . . a bad time to start a restaurant, as we now know. But Vaquero Y Mar (“cowboy and sea”), as it is now known, has managed to hang on.
Gonzalez has kept some aspects of the old space, like the curved roof, the retro sign and even the large mural inside displaying an idealized Chinese harbor. But this is very much a different sort of place, with homestyle Mexican food instead of Chinese and a cantina-like atmosphere. I arrived with my family for a weekend lunch, and the place was completely empty. But the proprietress and her husband were so warm and welcoming, we chose to not be dissuaded. With some respectable margaritas, crispy chips and fresh, zippy salsa in front of us, it was even easier to feel optimistic.
When it first opened, I recall that Vaquero Y Mar touted its menu as Tex-Mex; these days, I’d say it’s leaning more heavily on the Mexican side of things. Burritos, tacos, enchiladas and the like . . . with a few interesting additions. There were three kinds of ceviche, for example, and marinated beef cooked in a broth (birria de rez con consomé). The specialty of the house — Chiles en Nogada — is made with a pasilla chili stuffed with a beef and fruit stew.
That intriguing speciality was unfortunately not available the day we dined. But the chicken mole came highly recommended, and both the shrimp cocktail and birria pizzadilla sounded good. We found all three to be well prepared and flavorful.
The pizzadilla — a cross between a quesadilla and a pizza — consisted of two large flour tortillas sandwiched and topped with a mix of marinated beef, cheese, cilantro and onions. Very filling . . . and very good. That beef was to die for; super tender and beautifully seasoned. It came with a cup of consommé on the side, which was delicious. While it seemed odd to dip a quesadilla in broth, it was the perfect accompaniment.
The shrimp cocktail was gorgeous, served in a chilled goblet loaded with seafood, vegetables and a tangy tomato base amply spiked with fresh lime. Not sure a chilly winter day is the right time to order this dish, but for freshness and flavor, it gets high marks.
Not as high, however, as the mole. The presentation was humble: chicken leg and thigh bathed in thick, brick-red sauce alongside rice and refried Mayocoba (Peruvian) beans. A home-cooking kind of dish, made with care by a practiced hand. The mole was a nearly indescribable blend of chocolate, chiles and I’m not sure what else . . . savory, rich, complex and fabulous. The chicken was falling-off-the-bone tender. I’m not the biggest fan of mild Mayocoba beans, but these were an especially good preparation. I liked everything I ordered at Vaquero Y Mar, but I absolutely loved this dish.
I can’t imagine a better meal for these cold January days than a platter of chicken mole and some marinated beef dipped in consommé. With authentic, homestyle Mexican cooking served up by gracious hosts, Vaquero Y Mar is a far cry from the tropical escape to the South Seas that used to be found here. Rather, it’s a delicious trip south of the border. Buen viaje!