Sunday, April 5, 2015

Venga Venga Cantina and Tequila Bar

Sometimes, you just walk into a restaurant, and you know it's going to be amazing. Sure, there are some places that dump all of their energy into a swank space with little regard to the food and service, but that is surely not the case at Venga Venga, an enchanting Mexican restaurant in Otay Ranch. 

After leaving the entrance area, one would be tempted to simply hit the Tequila bar for their daily happy hour. However, as much as I love happy hour, the beautiful structure of this restaurant should be appreciated. The design is based on a traditional hacienda, the restaurant features a patio area directly in the middle of the restaurant for gathering, as well as gorgeous dining rooms. 

After taking in the sublime decor, we chose a table inside (only because I'm an overprotective mom, and the breeze outside worried me!). As is the tradition at Mexican restaurants, we were given a table serving of tortilla chips and salsa. The chips were fresh and still warm, and the salsa was a delectable spicy and smoky tomato and pepper combination.

Of course, nothing makes chips and salsa go down quite like a margarita! Spicy mango and strawberry were our choices, and they were perfection. The mix was sweet and slightly fiery, but not cloying.

Now that I'd had a taste of what we were in for, we got down to business with the first course of the night, an heirloom tomato salad. A simple tomato salad sounds somewhat boring, but I promise, this salad was quite remarkable. A Mexican take on the classic salad Caprese (traditionally an Italian salad featuring Roma tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese, and basil). This version featured heirloom tomatoes -- beautiful yellows, purples, and browns -- breaded and lightly fried goat cheese, sweet corn, and a tangy vinaigrette dressing. The flavor combination may sound strange, but it was exquisite.

Our next course was a Mexican tradition -- flautas. Rolled tacos made with homemade tortillas and braised beef cheeks (a cut that I've come to truly enjoy in the past couple of years), these were sublime. The tortillas were soft, but fried to a light crisp. The flavor of the beef was slightly smoky and garlicky, and incredibly tender. Topped with pickled onions, guacamole, and aioli, the flavors were intense, yet melded perfectly.

Next up were the tostadas, which were the most unusual tostadas that I've ever eaten, but also quite possibly the best. The first was an ahi tuna paired with, of all things, sweet watermelon. Sprinkled with black sesame seeds, the sweet flavor of the watermelon teased out an incredibly fresh flavor from the tuna. It was cooling, and perfect.

The other tostada was the charred octopus with refried chick peas and mandarin orange pico de gallo. I've had octopus as sushi, and never cared for it (plus I think that they're really cute), but I really enjoyed the flavor, and unlike the sushi version, this octopus was not rubbery.

Wings are a favorite for happy hours and watching sports, and these wings were a delicious alternative to the usual buffalo sauce, with an achiote chipotle sauce, and a cilantro ranch dipping sauce, I found myself reaching for another and another. I normally don't care for ranch dips, but this one was fresh and homemade, and the cilantro made the ranch flavorful and different.

And then it was time for the main course! It was Taco Tuesday, and a trio of street tacos with beans, rice, and esquites were the center of this amazing meal. The tacos sampled were the hanger steak, pork belly, and fried chicken. Hanger steak is my favorite cut of beef, also called the butcher's cut, and favored for French steak frites. It was a flavorful and luxurious taco, topped with guacamole. The pork belly was lightly fried for a crispy texture, and was delicious! The fried chicken was the final taco. Unexpected, as I've never had a fried chicken taco, but the meat was lean, tender, and covered with a cornmeal breading to keep with the flavor profile. It was not at all greasy, and paired well with the light slaw. 

No Mexican meal would be complete without beans and rice, but these beans and rice were not your ordinary refried and seasoned rice. The rice was cilantro pesto risotto, with so much flavor and texture, it was a meal all on its own. The beans were smoky, spicy, rich, and dark. Super tasty. To round it all out were the esquites, composed of corn, hominy, and a spicy aioli to be mixed into the vegetables. Most of the time, esquites is sweet, fresh flavor, but the garlicky aioli made them very savory and rich.

After all of this good food, of course a tequila tasting was in order! Venga Venga does their own tequila infusions, carefully blending flavors and aging them to a perfect mix of flavor and heat. The presentation of the tasting alone is quite impressive, but I was a bit nervous about the sting of the straight alcohol. I had no reason to be nervous -- the flavors were exquisite and sweet.  The flavors were as follows: watermelon, Granny Smith Apple, strawberry basil, grilled pineapple, tamarind, and spicy mango. My favorite was the strawberry basil, as I'm simply crazy for strawberry-flavored beverages. The watermelon and apple were definite close runners, however. I was very surprised at how sweet and fresh the flavors were of the infused tequilas. I was expecting them to be fiery and difficult to get down, but the fruit infusions made them delightful! 

Finally, there was dessert! After all of that good food, it was difficult to imagine where on earth I was going to put dessert, but I seem to produce a second stomach reserved only for dessert when sweets are involved. Two traditional Mexican desserts, tres leches cake and flan. The tres leches cake was not your ordinary, mushy, too-wet cake. This cake was almost like a scone soaked in the rich liquid to keep it from being too mushy, but the lovely flavor of the tres leches cake stayed present. Topped with whipped cream and strawberries, this cake was pure heaven.  
The flan was unlike any that I've ever had. I love flan, and I've had it many different ways, but this one was made with a cornmeal mix. The flavor of corn was present, but actually worked very well. And it was topped with homemade cracker jack! 
Venga Venga definitely has a great future in Otay Ranch. With a traditional menu of simple, good food prepared in the best way possible, and a beautiful atmosphere, it is certainly worth many more visits. 

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April 05, 2015 / by / 0 Comments

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