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RESTAURANT REVIEW / DESERT ROSE CAFE : Fish Dishes Prize Catch on Southwestern Menu

June 03, 1993|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Although I had driven past it innumerable times, I had never ventured into the Desert Rose Cafe, not once, not even cautiously. I assumed it to be a cliched version of a Mexican-American food joint, with rivers of canned enchilada sauce and mounds of reheated beans.

I assumed wrong. And I shall be forever grateful for the casual conversation that brought forth the chance comment that the nachos were good over at the Desert Rose. Well, OK, the nachos, I thought. I'll give them a try.

By now I've gone back so often--with such a happy smile on my face--that I'm greeted like a long-lost aunt.

Not only is there no canned enchilada sauce, this is not even a Mexican restaurant. It's a Southwestern-style eatery with a New Mexico flavored menu and Taos decor. It's almost too cute, with its silvery driftwood planters and turquoise and orange trim, blanched to pale pastels. But it's very pleasant in a delicate, rustic way, and the small booths are especially cozy.

A spacious, breezy patio accommodates a dozen umbrella-shaded tables. It could be vastly enhanced with better greenery and potted plants that didn't look as if they were trying miserably to survive in a desert. Still, it was a refreshing place for lunch after an exhilarating, exhausting morning at the Ventura flea markets, and a Chambord (black raspberry) virgin margarita went down well.

I preferred the regular menu to the Sunday brunch offerings, which consisted mostly of egg dishes. However, brunch items came with a champagne, orange juice and grenadine cocktail and wonderful warm sopaipillas that resembled unsweetened, whole wheat, cinnamon-flavored doughnuts.

A seafood omelet, full of delicious crab, was tastier than the fajita vegetable version. Huevos rancheros were better than average, layered with fine black beans.

Chicken tortilla soup may be the most invigorating soup in Ventura County and could surely qualify as Mexican amoxicillin. It cleared my sinuses in two spoonfuls. It was full of vegetables and chunks of chicken, and there was an occasional strip of soft, noodle-like tortilla. The well-seasoned, tantalizingly hot broth was the color of burnt sienna.

Among many impressive entrees, my favorite was the superb spinach enchilada. Plumped up with fresh, perfectly cooked spinach, it had a delicate sour cream and herb sauce and soft blue corn tortillas.

Shrimp scampi were wonderful curls of firm shellfish, accompanied by an oddly oily, orange flavored sauce for dipping. Halibut steak turned out to be a superb piece of fish with a subtle orange cream sauce.

If you're lucky, they will have fish tacos made with halibut too. The ones I tried were filled with fish chunks coated with a light creamy lime sauce and a sprinkling of grated cheeses and lettuce. A garnish plate on the side offered slices of avocado, potent fresh salsa and sweet chopped cabbage.

With the entrees, take your choice of two of the following: refried black beans; ranch style beans--also black; fresh vegetables; Navajo rice--fluffy white rice with flecks of green and red chilies; or a funky cilantro slaw, which reminded me of a pale version of the Korean pickled cabbage called kimchi .

Sweet, firm honey corn cakes sat like golden fried marbles on every plate. Whoever planned this restaurant truly likes feeding people.

The Mexican chef salad was a meat lover's feast, consisting mainly of huge shreds of tender chicken and beef. Papaya shrimp salad was much tastier served on a mound of chopped carrots, lettuce, olives, roasted red peppers and avocado slices. The combination of papaya and shrimp that had been delicately flavored with cumin was auspicious.

If you like roasted peppers, try the roasted pepper salad with pine nuts, avocado and black olives. It was delicious. I suggest asking for the thick, sweetish "southwest vinaigrette" dressing on the side. It's strictly for those who appreciate French dressing.

About those nachos. Piles of blue corn tortilla chips, savory black beans, good salsa, melted cheeses, chopped tomatoes, guacamole and sour cream. The usual. But at the Desert Rose each ingredient was at the peak of its potential. It was delectable--while it lasted.

* WHERE AND WHEN

The Desert Rose Cafe & Cantina, 26 Garden St., Ventura, 652-0338. Lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Brunch, lunch and dinner, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Lunch for two, food only, $10 to $35.

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