With its colorful hacienda-style decor, Sabor Cocina Mexicana in Valencia transports guests South-of-the-Border for a pleasant dining experience.

Plates shine with good looks and a wonderful array of flavors, some spicier than others, but not overbearing. Tempting appetizers, soups, salads, tacos, enchiladas, chiles rellenos, large plates, sides and desserts are among the menu selections. Fresh seasonal ingredients are utilized throughout. Sauces are made from scratch and corn and flour tortillas are handmade on the premises in various sizes for serving to diners and using in enchiladas, tacos and other dishes.

Once seated, a dish of terrific salsa fresco, made with fresh roasted tomatoes, jalapenos, onions and spices, is presented with corn-style yellow and red chips.

We kicked things off with the fresh (made to order) guacamole ($9). A good-size serving arrived in a white bowl plated with red and white rounds of tostaditas. Loaded with chunks of avocado, chopped tomatoes, onions, cilantro and a squeeze of lime, the guacamole was addictive. One of the best versions around – a definite winner.

A cup of tortilla soup ($5) turned out to be a delightful surprise. A server poured hot broth from a little pot into a square white bowl, the bottom filled with thin chicken breast shreds, tortilla strips, corn kernels, avocado slices, queso oaxaca and crema Mexicana. Seasoned to perfection, it hit the spot – and the little tidbits floating around added
texture and an appealing touch. An excellent bet.

The stylish entree-size shrimp salad ($15) was a refreshing mix of fresh, crisp organic mixed greens, tomato and roasted red pepper pieces, jicama strips, avocado slices and corn kernels. Well-dressed with a combination of pomegranate juice, champagne vinegar, agave nectar and extra virgin olive oil, six large spiced, tender grilled shrimp (wild pacific ones we were told) graced the edges of the bowl. A mix of ingredients that worked well together for a lovely main dish choice (or for diners to share with other plates).

Taco de carne asada ($15) – came presented attractively – three open-face soft tacos, the homemade corn tortilla bases piled with pieces of spiced up grilled skirt steak, cooked medium as ordered. Alongside was a bit of guacamole, a small scoop Spanish-style rice and cooked pinto beans with a sprinkle of queso fresco cheese in a ruffled crispy taco shell. While delicious, the portion seemed a bit skimpy – and was outdone by other menu offerings.

Enchiladas suizas ($15), a cut above most other restaurant renditions, came loaded with finely shredded chicken breast meat (wonderfully moist) along with shredded queso oaxaca and queso fresco cheeses. The three filled corn tortillas arrived topped with a blanket of fresh tomatillo salsa and crema Mexicana drizzles and plated with avocado slices, rice and beans. Savory and delectable with excellent flavor balance.

A highlight of the meal turned out to be the outstanding chile pasilla relleno ($16). The large fresh roasted green chile came stuffed with more of that terrific shredded white meat chicken and crumbled queso fresco cheese. Ringed with a colorful chipotle-roasted tomato sauce laced with a little rice and the top drizzled with crema Mexicana, it was picture pretty and a knockout with dynamite flavor.

Save room for the novel homemade churros ($8) for dessert. Deep fried, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and cut into small lengths, some Nutella has been piped into each. The chocolate, melting and oozing out, made the decadent pieces fun to eat. Accompanied with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and whipped cream, this dessert can’t be beat. Even churro naysayers gave this version rave reviews.

The chocolate creme brulee ($8) lured us, too. Although the menu mentioned it contained hints of guajillo chiles, we didn’t detect any remotely hot or spicy taste in the delicious one served.

At its best: Creative food and presentations served with flair, wonderfully seasoned and balanced. Lots of complex, sophisticated South-of-the Border Mexican fare using fresh, seasonal ingredients. Plates are a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. Sauces and tortillas made in house. A pleasant departure from standard Mexican eateries. Modest prices for the quality. Professional and attentive servers and staff.

Could be better: Noise level. Avoid outdoor seating (in a gated area in front of restaurant) as it lacks appeal and atmosphere. Smokers in nearby alley as you approach restaurant are off-putting.
Sabor Cocina Mexicana 3 stars