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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Enrique's Feels Like Trip to Margaritaville : Excellent drinks beat the often bland food at this long-lived Thousand Oaks Mexican eatery with a 1960s decor.

August 10, 1995|NORM CHANDLER FOX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Usually after I've won the confidence of someone and have been sworn to secrecy, I am told the name of that person's favorite Mexican restaurant.

Everyone seems to know of some incredible spot where the chimichangas are ethereal and the quesadillas are sublime. Usually, it's a place that's been around for a long time and has a dedicated following.

So, naturally, I had high hopes for Enrique's in Thousand Oaks when I learned that the place opened its doors in 1961 and that its present owners have been operating the restaurant for 18 years. That's equivalent to a millennium in the life span of Southern California establishments.

Walking into Enrique's, I felt as if I were entering a 1960s time warp. There are tall wooden booths, skylights, lots of wrought iron and hanging plants everywhere. The only things missing are macrame weavings.

There's a large bar where karaoke is performed on weekends, and if the weather's pleasant, I suggest dining out on the patio. The serving staff means well, particularly when they push the excellent margaritas, which come in a panoply of fresh fruit flavors and sizes. If only the food were as good as the cocktails.

My first warning of culinary problems came when I sampled the complimentary tostadita chips, which tasted of grease despite some pleasing red and green salsas for dipping.

An appetizer order of guacamole ($4.75) was so bland that it needed copious amounts of both salsas for flavor. The tortilla soup ($3, cup; $4.50, bowl) was a pleasant combination of chicken broth, chicken, fresh avocado and cilantro; but the slivers of fried tortillas added that rancid flavor of ancient grease.

The chicken tostada ($7.95) has plenty of chicken, nice whole pinto beans and fresh greens, and it's OK if you remember to order it without the topping of flavorless guacamole. A mushroom and scallion quesadilla ($5.95) is as dull and lifeless as the shredded beef chimichanga ($6.75).

The revelation here was an order of excellent shrimp fajitas ($12.25), which contained a sizzling platter of jumbo grilled shrimp sweet onions, peppers and tomatoes. Again, if you tell them to eliminate that awful guacamole, you can enjoy the accompanying fixings of good beans, Spanish rice and homemade pico de gallo salsa.

Also worth ordering are the juicy grilled garlic shrimp ($12.95) served in a nice cilantro and citrus sauce. Even if you've had a few margaritas, don't be lulled into trying the red snapper Vera Cruz ($8.95), which has an off-tasting fishy flavor that the decent tomato and onion sauce cannot attempt to mask.

Among the chicken offerings, stick to the simplest preparations. I liked the tender broiled breast of chicken ($8.25) with a squeeze of lemon and braised spinach. I also enjoyed the grilled half-chicken ($8.95) but I wished I had avoided the chiles relleno that accompanied it. I'm sure you've had a similar experience when you have bitten into something that didn't taste great, but kept eating it, with the mistaken notion that it magically would improve. This chiles relleno tasted like spicy glue all the way through.

The chicken in mole sauce ($8.95) is a complete disaster, since the chef doesn't even bother to mix the mole sauce properly. I kept biting into pungent-flavored nuggets of condensed sauce.

For those who are carnivorous, I recommend the chile Colorado ($7.95), a tender beef stew in a mild chile sauce; and the pork carnitas ($7.95), which have a nice smoky flavor. The chile verde ($7.95) of cubed pork in a tomatillo and green chile sauce is tender and tasty.

There's a box on the menu of eight Italian specialties containing such items as fettuccine Alfredo ($8.75), linguine with clam sauce ($8.95) and individual pepperoni pizzas ($7.85). Call me a coward, but I didn't have the nerve to order any of them.

For dessert, I suggest the decent flan ($2.25) and the coupe of vanilla ice cream, fresh strawberries and Grand Marnier ($4.95).

Enrique's kitchen seems to be running on automatic pilot, and I surmise that enough customers are satisfied with the mostly ordinary food to keep coming back. That, or too many margaritas have dulled their taste buds.

Details

* WHAT: Enrique's.

* WHERE: 159 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks.

* WHEN: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday.

* HOW MUCH: Dinner for two, food only, $25-$35.

* FYI: All credit cards, full bar.

* CALL: 495-1003.

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