While running an errand in Canoga Park, a friend suggested we try Pocos, a Mexican restaurant that cooks without lard and with only a minimum of salt.
Pocos has two long, narrow rooms. Focal point of what seems to be the main one is a potbellied stove. Follow the stovepipe upward though and, strangely enough, it just ends in midair. Booths around the outside of the casual room are upholstered in deep red, tables are covered with rose-colored cloths. A few antique photographs dot the walls.
While examining our menus, a basket of chips arrived, along with a cup of salsa and another of marinated vegetables; we found the marinated onions to be particularly addictive. It sounds typical, except that the chips had been fried in soy oil and sprinkled with a minimum of salt. And the salsa is made with grilled tomatoes and jalapenos, rather than fresh. It added spark to the rather bland guacamole served with an appetizer quesadilla.
Since Pocos has only a beer and wine license, they make their Margaritas with Chablis. We found the regular ones (they also make strawberry) delicious--frothy and not too sweet, served in wine glasses with bright red and green bands around the rims. The taste of these drinks is another departure from tradition that works well.
A limited list of wines is offered, some by the glass. Bottle prices are surprisingly moderate--Domaine Chandon, the only sparkling wine, is $14. Raymond Napa Chardonnay is $12 a bottle and Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc is $11. Among the three reds available, Louis Martini Zinfandel is $7, Beaulieu Vineyards Rutherford Cabernet, $12 a bottle.
Cerveza USA and Mexicana beer are $1.50 and $2.00, respectively. Coffee, soft drinks, milk and iced tea are also available. Decaffeinated coffee, however, was instant rather than brewed.
Poco's specializes in seafood, but the menu also features more standard offerings and a few unusual items such as tongue, frogs' legs and goat. They were out of the birria de chivo (barbecued goat) that one member of our party ordered on our first visit, so he tried the recommended pollo ranchero (chicken in ranch sauce) and was pleased.
The rest of us tended to stay with more typical items. Although I've had leaner and crisper carnitas, it was still very satisfactory, and a combination plate of taco, chile relleno and enchilada was judged above average. Each of these entrees came with a choice of soup or salad, rice and beans.
Chicken, vegetable and rice soup was more flavorful on one visit than another. The dressing on the salads was nothing special; but the greens were fresh and crisp, combined with a tomato wedge, grated carrots, green pepper strips and cucumber slices. You could tell the beans were cooked without lard, but the result is strictly a difference in flavor, not a drawback.
On another visit the barbecued goat was available, but it turned out to be rather disappointing. The meat was very fatty and the taste was rather cloying combined with the rich sauce.
Another of our more adventuresome choices, deep-fried whole fish, would make a good addition to a multi-dish feast that was shared by several people, but it was not as appealing as a single entree.
More satisfying choices were the camarones imperiales (imperial shrimp with bacon and bell pepper) and the camarones al mojo de ajo (shrimp with butter and garlic). Fish entrees were served with rice and julienned zucchini, carrots and squash.
Portions of everything ordered were very generous; the aforementioned deep-fried snapper must have weighed at last three pounds, and it hung over both ends of the 12-inch oval dinner plate.
Desserts are given minimum attention at Pocos, possibly because after such ample entree portions, few patrons order them anyway. Flan was the only offering; and although certainly passable, it was nothing special.
They also offer espresso and cappuccino, which I find a bit odd for a Mexican restaurant. But let's face it, nothing at Poco's is quite what you might expect, and that's exactly why it's worth a visit.
Pocos Mexican Restaurant, 20917 Sherman Way, Canoga Park, (818) 340-6546. Open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. American Express, MasterCard and VISA accepted. Lot parking. Entrees from $4.95 to $19.95.