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RESTAURANT REVIEW REUBEN'S BURRITOS : Tortilla Fat : The eatery's well-stuffed namesake gives distinction to any Mexican food picnic.

February 06, 1992|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If ever a place fit the description, "hole in the wall," Reuben's Burritos in Ojai is it. It has funky brown linoleum, plastic chairs and only two tables--and one is so small it hardly counts. The kitchen may be twice as big as the seating area, but it is strictly utilitarian.

Seen through the drink machines on the counter, it looks as if it consists mostly of big pots under a huge range hood. The place looks like a thousand other fast-food outlets. But this isn't just any step-up-to-the-counter dive. This is where the well-filled tortilla gives distinction and glory to the name burrito.

My daughter, who graduated from high school in Ojai, had been telling me about Reuben's for years; but I thought her enthusiasm was the result of teen-age appetite and boarding school food. We finally went there together recently. We ordered a meal to take out, and we ate it under stately oak trees in the park across the street.

The burritos are huge, soft and heavy. Unwrapping and re-wrapping one for eating purposes is like swaddling a baby. Chile Colorado was gooey, but delicious, with lots of spicy beef, along with rice and beans. They don't fry the beans or the rice, so the taste is different and very appealing.

One of the most popular burritos, the vegetarian burrito, is more like a salad burrito--with rice and beans, lots of fresh lettuce, tomatoes, chopped onions and cilantro. The chile verde burrito combined the warm piquancy of the green chiles with tasty, tender strings of pork. I think the secret of the burritos' success is due to the texture of the rice and the way the soft, warm flour tortilla melds with the ingredients.

Reuben Duarte got his start in the food business in 1986 with a tiny little cart on wheels in Miramonte. Business was so good, he was able to move to his location in Ojai in less than a year. Fourteen months ago, he opened a second spot in Oak View. He learned to cook, he said, from his tia , an aunt who lived until she was 98 and who did everything in a very traditional way. "When she died, a part of Mexico died," Reuben says. His only regret is that he didn't get more of her recipes.

Still, he's doing pretty well. His chicken mole came with a large, skinless, boneless chicken breast covered by a delicate, pale orange mole sauce with a hint of sweetness. Be sure to order extra hot sauce and a side of guacamole; it's cheap and it adds a nice taste.

More advice: Try the specials for the kinds of dishes you may not have tried anywhere else. Recently, at another picnic catered by Reuben's takeout, we had a fried cornmeal sopes, a cornmeal pillow covered with beans, lettuce, tomato, sour cream, salsa verde.

Reuben's food is very filling, but it has remarkably little fat. Nothing is fried and no lard has been used. They call this kind of cooking del olla --out of the pot. So enjoy it again and again.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Reuben's Burritos, 104 N. Signal St., Ojai, 646-6111, and 545 N. Ventura Ave., Oak View, 649-5133. No alcohol; cash and checks. Open every day 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Lunch or dinner for one, food only, $3.20-$6.90.

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