Southern California: Where to Eat in Conejo Valley
Tucked away in the Santa Monica Mountains is beautiful Conejo Valley, a picturesque region encompassing the communities of Thousand Oaks, Agoura Hills, Westlake Village, Newbury Park, and nearby environs. Surrounded by rolling green hills, this Southern California gem is located just 30 minutes from Malibu and 45 minutes from Los Angeles, but far removed from the bustling crowds and busy traffic.
While tourist attractions such as the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, annual festivals such as Conejo Valley Days, and miles of hiking and horse trails attract visitors, this region is also home to a flourishing culinary scene with a variety of restaurants, from brewpubs to fine dining; from New Zealand specialties to Peruvian sandwiches. My husband and I recently embarked on a road trip from Phoenix, Arizona to spend some time in this beautiful part of Southern California. Here are some of the culinary highlights we discovered.
Start your day in Thousand Oaks at Chocolatine French Café. Step through the door of this charming patisserie serving breakfast and lunch, and you'll be greeted with a cheery "bonjour!" by owner Sandrine Casanova-Paccallet. Casanova-Paccallet and her husband and pastry chef Ludovic fell in love with the café while visiting from Lyon, France, bought it from the original owners when they retired, and recently celebrated four successful years. Spoil yourself with treats such as croissants, macarons, chocolates, and crepes with your café au lait, or visit at lunch for the soupe du jour, quiche, or bistro sandwiches such as a croque monsieur.
Chocolatine French Café: 2955 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, CA. Phone 557-0561.
Next door to Chocolatine is Bad Ass Tacos, a busy spot that has grown from a popular after-hours taco stand to its present location with seating inside and out at picnic tables under a canvas tent. Diners can order tortas, burritos, and quesadillas, but the street tacos take center stage. Warm tortillas are folded around eleven fillings ranging from traditional carne asada to red wine-marinated, slow-roasted short ribs and fish grilled with lime butter. I didn't have a chance to work my way through the entire menu, but favorites include the cochinita pibil (a Yucatán specialty of pork seasoned with achiote and sour orange and cooked in banana leaves) and chorizo y papa (a spicy-savory duo of cubed potatoes sauteed with crumbled chorizo).
Bad Ass Tacos: 2951 Thousand Oaks Blvd, Thousand Oaks, CA 91362. Phone: (805) 370-8226
A Westlake Village gem, eLoong Dumplings can be found hidden inside the North Ranch Gateway Shopping Center. The menu offers authentic Chinese dishes including wonderful appetizers, soups, and stir-fried rice, noodles, rice cakes and vegetables. However, as the sign outside signifies, the handmade dumplings are the main draw. These delicious bites include tender steamed shu mai stuffed with shrimp, vegetarian dumplings, and spicy pork wontons, but it's the xiao long bao (or XLB as fans call them) that are the star of the show. XLB are soup dumplings encasing cubes of gelatinized stock which melt as they steam, and at eLoong you'll feast on supple, thin-skinned packages bursting with a juicy filling and flavorful broth. I like to order them with extra chili oil and a side of Sichuan cucumber salad.
eLoong Dumplings: 30843 Thousand Oaks Blvd, Westlake Village, CA 91362. Phone: (818) 532-7668
Plan a visit to Mouthful Eatery for Peruvian-inspired sandwiches, bowls, salads, and sides. Co-owner Luis Alberto Sanchez drew from his Lima, Peru roots and his training at Le Cordon Bleu in creating a unique menu where everything is made from scratch. This local favorite opened as a 16-seat restaurant that expanded within a year to its current 55-seat space. The colorful chalkboard menu invites you to choose dishes such as frito pescadito (cod topped with tropical peanut slaw and chile de arbol gastrique) or La Sarita (roasted pork with sweet potatoes and aji amarillo aioli) before "Selecting your Style" - stacked on house-baked bread or in a bowl over organic quinoa or steamed rice. I'm partial to lomo saltado, a traditional Peruvian stir-fry dish of tender and flavorful soy-marinated skirt steak, tomatoes, red onions, yuca fries, and aioli. In the evening, the menu expands to entrees, or you can make reservations for a special three-course prix-fixe dinner that takes place once a month. Tip: Don't leave without ordering alfajores, addictive Peruvian dulce de leche sandwich cookies.
Mouthful Eatery: 2626 Thousand Oaks Blvd, Thousand Oaks, CA 91362. Phone: (805) 288-6055
The unique moniker of Ladyface Alehouse and Brasserie in Agoura Hills is a nod to Ladyface Mountain, which is in full view on the pretty patio shaded by sun sails. Conejo Valley's first craft brewery, Ladyface is known for their award-winning Belgian, French and American-style ales, though the restaurant also offers a full bar with cocktails featuring house-infused spirits. The menu, which sources local and seasonal ingredients, reflects the beer list anchored by Belgian ales with European favorites. Thus, in addition to brew-friendly partners such as fish and chips and the Ladyface Burger (made with dry-aged, grass-fed Novy Ranch beef from nearby Simi Valley), you'll find duck confit, tarte flambée, moule frites, and salade niçoise. Sit back and order a beer flight, or try one of their cask ales, such as the Pedal Pusher, a Dérailleur bière-de-garde with hints of cardamom and coriander that I enjoyed on my visit (photo above).
Ladyface Alehouse & Brasserie: 29281 Agoura Rd, Agoura Hills, CA 91301. Phone: (818) 477-4566.
At Aroha (meaning "love" in the Māori language of New Zealand) chef-owner Gwithyen Thomas shares his love of his native cuisine with ingredients sourced from his island country. Feijoa (pineapple guava) and passionfruit are grown on the patio, his dishes are seasoned with wild herbs such as kawakawa and horopito, and fresh seafood, meat, and poultry are flown in from New Zealand. This means you'll find NZ Cloudy Bay surf clams and green-lipped mussels in a fragrant coconut-curry broth spiked with chile and garlic, hāpuku (grouper) with carrot puree, smoked mushrooms and bacon emulsion, and the signature horopito-crusted NZ venison with sweet potato crisps, vanilla-parsnip purée, pistachios, and cherry compote. On a past trip to New Zealand, I fell in love with traditional desserts such as Hokey-Pokey (ice cream studded with honeycomb toffee) and Pavlova (crispy meringue filled with cream and fruit), so was happy to see a modern take of these kiwi classics on the dessert menu. Alas, I had left no room and will have to save that for a future visit. If you're lucky, you'll meet GM Jillian, who will expertly guide you through the menu, suggest wine pairings from the curated list, and introduce you to her well-crafted cocktails.
DINNER WITH A VIEW
An idyllic destination for brunch, lunch, or dinner in Conejo Valley is Zin Bistro Americana in Westlake Village. With a prime location lakeside, it's the perfect spot for a relaxing sunset date. Start with a classic Kir Royale (champagne and raspberry liqueur) as you share a chilled seafood platter or yellowtail crudo before moving on to a Caesar salad made tableside. Enjoy steak and seafood options such as lobster ravioli, diver scallops with mushroom risotto, filet mignon, or an excellent chicken cordon bleu stuffed with ham and Gruyère cheese. There's a cozy firepit on the patio for cooler nights, and live music in the lounge Thursday through Saturday.
Zin Bistro Americana: 32131 Lindero Canyon Rd #111, Westlake Village, CA 91361. Phone: (818) 865-0095
Gelato and Sweet Treats
TIFA Chocolate & Gelato is a family-owned business that began in 2007 as a retail online chocolate company. Now you can visit their welcoming shop in Agoura Hills' Marzin Market Shopping Center to indulge in decadent chocolates (try dark chocolate whiskey, pistachio-rose, and hickory-smoked salted caramel), pastries, brownies, cookies and wonderful gelato made onsite. You can sample flavors such as cookie butter, milk chocolate hazelnut, coconut chai and sugar-free cinnamon. Can't decide on just one? You don't have to! You can get a combination of three, which is what I did - settling on a fantastic trio of fig and mascarpone, honey and lavender, and strawberry-balsamic gelati.
TIFA Chocolate & Gelato: 28888 Roadside Dr, Agoura Hills, CA 91301. Phone: (818) 879-0685.
I partnered with Conejo Valley Tourism for my fun, food-filled trip, and you can find more information on the region's activities, dining, lodging, and annual events at Visit Conejo.