Say “Hola” To Upscale Mexican Dining

In December, I’m in a festive MOOD. Every night out feels like a holiday party. I’m drawn to restaurants with flashier decorations and lower lighting. I want the hum of a musical sound track and glasses clinking in the background. And I want to be able to dress up more than I usually do—no jeans for outings. Instead I break out the silks and sequins, and I can even get dressed up for Mexican food because Sabor Cocina Mexicana has come to The
Lakes shopping center in Thousand Oaks.

Mark and Leticia Hansen brought Sabor Cocina Mexicana farther west after their original Santa Clarita Sabor saw success. Mark, who oversees the dining room, describes the decor as “Sabor One on steroids.” I’d call it classy Latin. Huge, fun chandeliers with red-glass hearts hail from Guadalajara and hang in the main dining room. Hacienda-style wooden booths and tall-backed chairs make diners feel almost royal. Star-shaped lanterns lend a party feel to the separate bar area. Colorful Mexican tiles are sprinkled throughout the rooms, including the bathrooms.

The food is also presented with style, thanks to Leticia, who meticulously checks every plate before it leaves the kitchen. She created all of the recipes herself, blending regional Mexican specialties with California ingredients and modern sensibilities. She goes easy on the salt so I found myself wanting to add a bit, but everything is fresh and lively and plated like a work of art. The guacamole appetizer ($9 for four large scoops of barely mashed ripe avocado) comes with tiny, crispy tortilla rounds.I’m a sucker for achiote, the little red seeds of the Bixa orellana shrub from whence comes annatto. Hispanic cultures boil the achiote seeds in water or oil and use the resulting liquid for braising meats and vegetables. So I had to order the Cochinita Pibil ($18), a specialty from the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, where Leticia’s family is from. The pibil’s tender chunks of pork and onions are flavored not only with achiote but also banana leaves and a hint of cinnamon. It’s served with warm tortillas for wrapping and a flavorful, only slightly fiery habanero sauce for topping. On the side: white rice shaped into a round using a ring mold, black beans inside a crisp fluted tortilla, and plantains. (The Yucatán has a heavy Caribbean influence, hence the plantains and black beans.) Many of the other entrées come with a disc of seasoned rice, and mashed pinto beans in that pretty tortilla cup. The Enchiladas Suizas ($15) are filled with tender chicken and very mild Oaxacan cheese, then topped with salsa verde. European influences affect dessert: The churros ($8), fried on the spot, are filled with Nutella and served with ice cream. The Chile Chocolate Crème Brûlée ($8) is made with Valrhona chocolate and spicy guajillo chiles. The dense, sweet custard makes sure your tastebuds are perfectly satisfied and slightly sad that the party is over.