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RESTAURANT REVIEW LA GLORIA : Fiesta Flavor : A combination of markets and restaurants brings the sights and smells of Mexico to downtown Oxnard.

April 25, 1991|DAVID GOLDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

La Gloria is difficult to pin down as just a restaurant or a market. It is a place full of food, commerce and warm feelings. And full of life.

To be there is to hear the shrieks of little girls who have just come in from church on a Sunday morning--still dressed in their best; to see photographs of soldiers of the Mexican Revolution on the walls and dozens of colorful pinatas hanging from the ceiling, and to smell just-made corn tortillas, mixed with the pungent odors of fresh cilantro and pineapples and mangoes from the produce bins.

The amiable chatter of Spanish conversation is in the aisles and in every corner and the smells of cooking are everyplace.

Situated across a side street from the Oxnard Transportation Center this piece of Latin America could just as easily be in Guadalajara or in Guatemala City.

La Gloria is a food market. But it is also a restaurant--or several restaurants. Inside the complex you'll find, in addition to the foods, a beauty parlor, a travel agency and an office. In this building, according to the signs in Spanish, you can do anything from buying a bus ticket for Zacatecas, Mexico, to getting information on how to get a California driver's license or how to sell a house.

But it is the food that draws people into this largest of the county's Latino markets.

On top of the fish counter sit jars of pickled pig's feet, and below the jars, on ice, are fresh catfish--whiskers and all--or octopus and shrimp. The pig's feet sit next to a bar over which hang dozens of links of freshly made chorizo sausage.

In the produce area are none of the smaller, more delicate Hawaiian papayas. Here, it's the large Mexican ones, nestled next to items such as nopalitos (cactus), coconuts ready for drinking and, near that, large stacks of Wonder Bread. In the meat department there are a few filet mignons, but plenty of cuts like beef shanks and, of course, tripe for making menudo, Mexico's stewed tripe dish.

If you can't find it here, La Gloria's customers will tell you, then you'd best head south, at least as far as Los Angeles, and maybe on down to Tijuana.

But the real glory of La Gloria is its restaurant cuisine or, more accurately, its delicatessen food. On the right as you walk in is the tortilleria . Here they make what store manager Gabriel Quiroz calls the best commercial tortilla in the region.

Granted, says Quiroz, these don't have the quality of product made at home by hand, but they're made of "the best quality California corn, and we sell them hot. When they cool down, we lower the price.

"This is a part of the Mexican culture," Quiroz says, "It's like bread for the French."

For those who prefer the flour tortilla more common in northern Mexico (the large, thin models used for burritos), La Gloria sells them, but does not make them on the premises.

Another corn product produced by the tortilleria is masa, which is the same mix as the corn tortillas but with lard, salt and baking powder added to make it heavier and useful for making items such as tamales, sopes and gorditas.

At the tortilla counter, several savory meat choices sit alongside the tortillas. They're next to varieties of salsas and fiery, picked jalapeno chiles. Whole chickens sizzle on the rotisseries, but perhaps more authentic are the trays of Mexican meat dishes--the carnitas (barbecued pork), buches (pig's stomach intestine) and, most flavorful of all, the birria (goat roasted in its own juices).

The meats are usually put inside a couple of tortillas, one's choice of sauce is added, and there you have it. Adding the sauce is important since some of these meats, particularly the carnitas, can be dry without it.

If simple meat tacos are not your thing, then turn around, because across the way is the real delicatessen.

The best strategy here is to have a friend wait in line. In the delicatessen, meat and produce portion of La Gloria, there's only one cashier and, especially after-church hours on Sunday morning, the line can be long.

Choosing goodies at this counter is not easy. One favorite would be the gordita. This is the real thing: a large, freshly fried ball of corn masa into which has been cooked a large handful of carnitas. Since this can get a little dry, have the person behind the counter crack it open and pour in some sauce, which soaks into the masa and makes the whole thing come together in a tangy, messy ball of flavor.

Although there are such mundane items as fish ceviche, potato salad and a fajitas stew, my own favorites are the brain tacos. These are gently cooked calf's brains inside a crisp, fried corn tortilla. And there is a superb chile relleno , with the breading on the outside still warm but the cheese inside barely melted. La Gloria's chile relleno is a large one and, although the degree of spiciness varies from pepper to pepper, these are generally pretty hot.

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