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RESTAURANT REVIEW / THE TACO CORRAL : Ups, Downs of Family Business : Clan's Mexican fare excels where it is authentic, but quality of the dishes in some cases proves to be uneven.

May 27, 1993|DAVID B. GOLDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Contrary to what its name implies, the Taco Corral is not a fenced area within which tacos gather.

And if that sounds like an abysmally corny way to talk about a Mexican restaurant, hidden at the edge of a large, contemporary Ventura shopping center for the past six years, then let me say that the restaurant has its name because the people who operate it are named Corral.

The Corral is run by Corrals. By two Corral brothers, Felipe and Dale; and by the rest of the family, including several more of the 10 Corral siblings; and by the patriarchs, Celedonia and Erasmus. The Corral family business is a storefront in your standard shopping center environment, with T-bar ceilings, Formica tables and a constant assortment of artificial sounds from two game machines on one side of the room. In the corner there are copies of an autos for sale publication, which slowly dwindles as the day's steady stream of customers goes in and out.

The Taco Corral bills itself as a place where you eat "Authentic Mexican Food"--a phrase I can only rarely resist. To a degree, the description fits.

But the exceptions are important. You wouldn't call the packaged taco shells that the Corrals use for their hard tacos "authentic," and it is a real shame that the Corrals, who put out some very good meats and some good sauces, have chosen to use a commercial soft taco, made in Oxnard, instead of making their own. It would make all the difference.

After all, nearly all the rest of the food is homemade, and it is authentic--much of it made by Caledonia. The chile relleno ($5.55 combination) is large, not really too hot (you may have to add some hot sauce), a little watery (perhaps from the lettuce accompanying it) but nicely breaded and seasoned. I understand that that's Celedonia's own product, as is the sauce.

Another spot in which authenticity would help is inside the hard shell tacos ($5.55 combination), where the beef is ground instead of shredded.

They've solved this problem with the tamale ($5.55 combination), one of the best of the Corral dishes. The masa isn't too dense, the meat is nice and chunky, the sauce is first-class.

It's also the sauce that makes the chile verde ($5.55 combination) one of the restaurant's best dishes. With lots of tasty pork, this dish does meet the authenticity standard.

What I prefer to do at Taco Corral is order nearly everything a la carte. Their beans are just okay and the rice is as dull as it comes, but when you get into the tacos themselves, the soft ones, you're getting the best of the place.

Most of it is pork--the chicken version seems as though the meat is almost ground and lacks texture--and, whichever way it is prepared, the meat is tender and the flavors work. The soft taco pastor ($1 a la carte), chunks of pork, marinated overnight and then grilled, is a succulent dish. The carne asada ($1.30 a la carte) comes out just a little dry. But in each of these, there's plenty of meat and, naturally, lots of the good homemade sauce. Perhaps the carnitas tacos ($1 a la carte) are most worth coming here for. They're not too crisp, just chunks of seasoned and sauced Mexican pork.

And you'd go for the burritos ($3.25-$3.35)--large, heavy and hearty, stuffed with beans and rice and with chile relleno or pastor or the carne asada. Or you'd go for the enchiladas. I put them up with the carnitas as being worth a trip. The chicken version ($1.75 a la carte), again, has that sort of mealy chicken, but ask the kitchen to make them of cheese or of carnitas; with Celedonia's sauce and the tortillas cooked just firmly enough, Corrals puts out one of the best enchiladas around.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Taco Corral, 4726-1 Telephone Road, Ventura, 658-2819. Open Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 9 a.m.-4 p.m. No credit cards, no reservations. Beer and wine. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $8-$14.

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