The Ojai Valley runs east-west, making it one of the few places in the world where you can witness a pink moment, a twilight phenomenon when the mountain tops seem to glow with a brilliant pink hue. Perhaps this was the reason the movie Shangri La, a magical place based on the book Lost Horizon, was filmed here?
Located about an hour from bustling Los Angeles is a valley that time seems to have forgotten. The city of Ojai, part of the Ojai Valley, is nestled among rolling hills, citrus orchards and towering oak trees. Travelers have been coming to Ojai for its health spas, outdoor activities and natural beauty. Foodies, however, have discovered that Ojai has an abundance of culinary eateries that have commanded a loyal following.
Originally, the downtown area or village as locals call it was constructed using Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. The street is adorned with Spanish-style arcades and the original bell tower is still standing prominently on Ojai Ave.
Locals seem to like the fact that Ojai’s sleepy little small town image is also a place where there are no big box stores or chain restaurants. Instead, entrepreneurs (many of whom are transplants from others places in the U.S.) have started their one-of-a-kind mom and pop eateries.
I set out to find the best in local color and flavor, and fortunately, most of the venues are located in and around the village and within walking distance. Let the food tour begin!
Here, they serve homemade Mexican food and the specialty is tamales. They have eight varieties, including chicken, beef and red pork and pineapple. Their sweet corn tamales taste more like a dessert and would be a good choice after the others. You can buy a single or take home a dozen. ($2.75/single, $30/dozen)
Ojai Coffee Roasting Company
This is a hot spot where locals get together over a freshly brewed cup of joe or any number of variations thereof. The owner is passionate about his beans, imports them from all over the world and roasts them to perfection on site. Get acquainted with the townsfolk, read a book or just relax.
Los Caporales Restaurant & Bar
Another family-owned location in the heart of downtown, this one features many Mexican specialties, all made from scratch. But they also have something special here that they invented one day when they were just trying to put something together for a meal. It’s called Nectar of the Gods, and after tasting it, I can see why this happy entrée brings patrons back every time. The dish is a soup made with whole pinto beans, tomatoes, onion, chicken, cilantro, and Mexican queso fresco. All the flavors combine into a tasty cultural mélange that will make your taste buds pop! ($9.99)
Before or after you meal, be sure to check out their tequila bar next door. There, you can choose from more than 150 brands, some of which are quite rare.
Ojai Beverage Company
Step inside and you will find every sort of beer and wine you can imagine and then some. Some of the labels and graphics are more like works of art with colorful names such as Masked Rider Gunsmoke Red and Voodoo Maple Bacon Ale. Libations as well as food are available.
Run by a mom and her two daughters, this eatery lovingly makes their breads in small batches using local ingredients. Their sourdough variety is made from a wild yeast starter that originated from organic grapes back in 1996. They also serve sandwiches, salads and pastries.
They came up with this catchy name by taking the Spanish word for blue, azul, and dropping the l. Azu is located in a 100-year old bakery and serves Mediterranean tapas (small bites) as well as entrees and salads. Among the tapas I tried, my favorite and the hit of the table was their stuffed dates. They start with Hadley organic medjool dates, wrap them with bacon, stuff them with chorizo, and then cook them to crisply goodness. This sweet and smoky sensation was simply delicious and I really couldn’t get enough.
Casa Barranca Organic Winery
Situated in the Ojai Arcade, this establishment’s winemaker studied the art for 15 years in France. In their tasting room, they offer a variety of organic wines made without some of the bad things that may get on grapes when they are in the vineyard. Surprisingly, the wines I tried were full of flavor –from mild to robust–and this winery has been quite successful at impressing the local community and beyond with their skills. Among their selection, they offer Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon ($3 for a taste of most).
Winner of Ojai’s best restaurant for four years running (2006-2009), Feast Bistro serves up New American Cuisine. Chef Susan Coulter creates her own brand of palate pleasing favorites with dishes like mussel and clam steamers in a cream reduction sauce with garlic or duck breast with sour cherry compote. She has different fish entrees each day and the one I tried was a Lake Superior whitefish with sautéed Swiss chard and a sweet and sour sauce. The combination of the mild fish with the tangy sauce made this one of my instant seafood favorites.
Jim Churchill, whom I’ve dubbed The Pixie King, is a highly educated man who, through a series of unfortunate events, found himself running an orchard producing pixie tangerines. These little orange delights are sweet, seedless and easy to peel. You can find these around town and at the farmers’ market held on Sundays from 9-1 pm. As Jim says, “They’re sweet, petite and ready to eat.”
Where to Stay
The Lavender Inn
This historic bed and breakfast was originally the first schoolhouse in town, built in 1874. Today, they have 7 charming and cozy rooms and one full cottage with prices starting at $130.
There’s no skimping on the breakfast here either and my morning started with egg quesadillas, fresh fruit, sweet sautéed sausage, rolls, juice, and coffee. In the evening, they also serve cheese, chilled wines and assorted appetizers.
This is the perfect way to begin or end the day’s eating experience. Sitting on the porch surrounded by flowers, the smell of lavender and their house kitty cuddled up next to me is about as close to Shangri La as I’m likely to get.
FTC Disclosure: All accommodations and meals were sponsored by the providers mentioned in this story but did not influence my efforts in writing this story.
Ojai Visitors Bureau
Ventura Food Tours
(Food sample tours around Ojai
by an accomplished culinary journalist)