Looks can definitely be deceiving. Take Sabor Cocina Mexicana. From exterior appearances, this might be your typical strip mall Mexican joint. But that impression would be wrong. Oh so wrong.

Open the doors and enter a huge, gorgeous Mexican hacienda, with seating for up to 130 people. The main dining room boasts stone floors, ornate hand-tooled leather chairs, burgundy glass chandeliers, festive tile and velvet-encased high-back booths.

Walk into the bar and be dazzled by the distressed copper counter, striking black and white photos surrounded by colorful glass hearts and a golden glow from the warmly painted walls. Even the hallway, with its ornate cross collection and arched entrance, is a work of art.

Thankfully, this artistry and attention to detail is more than present within Sabor’s food, an eclectic mélange of dishes from across Mexico.

“This is authentic, upscale Mexican food from every region, from Oaxaca to the Yucatan. We only use fresh everything. We make our tortillas. Our fish is fresh, never frozen,” said manager Gino Martinez. “For our shrimp ceviche, we use wild Mexican shrimp, which is the best shrimp in the world.”

For the fish ceviche (market price), Sabor marinates succulent chunks of Alaskan halibut with lime juice and tosses in cilantro, heirloom tomatoes, peppers, cilantro, and avocado. It’s a flavor and texture explosion, from the fruity, citrus notes to the delicate fish and creamy avocado to the crunchy bits of zesty pepper. Ceviche can go seriously south in the wrong hands. At Sabor, it’s clear there’s an expert in the house.

That would be Chef Leticia Hansen, whose chile pasilla relleno ($14) is a wonder compared to the gloppy, greasy, canned, cheesy mess favored by chain restaurants. Here, Hansen has the gleaming green pasilla chile take center stage, adorned by little more than a zig-zag drizzle of crema and roasted crumbles of fresh Mexican cheese, sitting atop a delicious pool of roasted red pepper sauce and fluffy rice. Inside, the pepper is literally packed with tender shreds of organic white meat chicken. Elegant, exciting and yet somehow homey, it’s an extremely satisfying entree.

For seafood lovers, there’s a chile relleno mariscos ($24) and vegetarians can opt for the traditional cheese version ($16). Carnivores will enjoy sinking their teeth into a carne estilo publa, grilled steak served over grilled onions with a cheese and plantain mole ($28) or carnitas, organic roasted pork served with cilantro sauce, guacamole and fresh tortillas ($15).
“Carnitas at some other places might be made two to three days in advance. Here, we make carnitas fresh every day,” Martinez said.

Tacos de pescado ($16) are another Sabor revelation, street food taken to gourmet heights. Grilled sea bass cubes are placed on handmade corn tortillas, so fresh they leave behind that clean corn scent on your hands. A spread off jalapeno crème adds a luscious bite of chile, while the small mound of tropical salsa, which should be spread across the top of the fish, cuts through the richness with its acidic fruitiness. Sides include creamy black beans with just the right hint of spices, perfectly cooked plantains, and savory steamed rice.

By day, Sabor is a first-rate business or casual lunch destination. At night, however, the restaurant transforms into a sexy date spot, fueled by a cantina that serves everything from draft beer to well drinks and of course, margaritas, graced with the Sabor touch.

“Everybody comes to enjoy margaritas at Sabor,” Martinez said. “Everything’s different here.”

That means margaritas made with fresh fruit juices in seasonal flavors such as watermelon blueberry or jicama cucumber and served in huge, handmade Mexican glasses. At happy hour, which takes place at Sabor Monday through Friday from 3 to 7 p.m., margaritas are just $5; well drinks and beers $4. Appetizers, with the exception of ceviche, are also $5 and include made-to-order guacamole, chicken or beef taquitos, cheese quesadillas, or sopes de camarones, shrimp in achiote served with lettuce, cream, queso fresco, and sliced avocado.

Patrons can enjoy their meal inside or take a seat in the outside courtyard. “That’s popular right now, with the weather so nice,” Martinez said.

Open since January 2009, Sabor added a second location in Thousand Oaks three weeks ago.

“Business is good, very good. We’re surprised in this economy. We try to give the best service, with one server for every three tables and busboys and runners. Managers watch over all the tables,” Martinez said. “But our principal is the food. Our food is the first thing.”