RESTAURANT REVIEW:

When it comes to homemade tortillas, I have been spoiled since last year’s trip to Mexicali. To taste homemade tortillas hot, fresh and full of flavor was a perfect experience, but it has intensified my scrutiny of other tortillas.

La Choza, which is Spanish for “the hut,” advertises homemade corn tortillas. The smell of the tortillas greets your nose as you walk in.

The restaurant has been at its O.C. location for a little more than a year after being forced out of its Santa Monica site of 31 years.

In the beginning, owner Enrique Haro opened his restaurant and worked to grow the business in what was a remote area in 1976.

Customers came for the handmade tortillas and the margaritas, as well as some intriguing entrée items.

His challenge in Orange County is similar to what he faced in 1976. The site of his restaurant is across from the closed Levitz store, and until Bella Terra expands, he will not have a lot of foot traffic.

The former occupant was a Vietnamese restaurant that never caught on with the community. La Choza’s food, though, should be enough to bring customers to the elegantly decorated restaurant.

Haro transformed the two-room facility into a warm, inviting space. The walls are decorated with vines and paintings, and the tables and chairs are very comfortable. The second room can be used as a banquet room for private parties.

My lunch began with the queso fundido and combined two of my weaknesses, cheese and chorizo. The Monterey Jack cheese is put in a mini casserole dish and melted with flecks of the Mexican sausage sprinkled on top.

If you don’t know that the cheese and chorizo are going to leave grease in the bottom of the dish it would be an alarming site, but I was expecting that and enjoyed the dish with the three homemade tortillas.

I have read criticism of the tortillas from another reviewer as doughy and spongy, but I found neither to be the case. The tortillas are going to be thicker, and I enjoyed the texture and the flavor.

One of the other appetizers I found distinctive was the nopalitos. Tender young cactus is mixed with chopped tomato, onions and cilantro and served with the tortillas.

On Mondays burrito and margarita specials are promoted, and Haro takes a dollar off the regular price. I was in the mood for a chicken burrito and got the burrito plate, which came with rice and beans.

The burrito was stuffed with breast meat and not filled with rice and beans, which always annoys me. Instead, bell peppers, tomatoes and onions were placed inside the flour tortilla and accompanied the chicken quite well. It was topped with red enchilada sauce and jack and cheddar cheese. Usually rice and beans are an afterthought on combination plates, but both were flavorful and interesting.

For dinner I would recommend something a little more adventurous than a burrito. There are some interesting possibilities. The fish selections feature dishes like pescado jarocho, which is red snapper sautéed in butter topped with tomato, onions, green bell peppers, olives, capers and topped with a jalapeño sauce.

Another dish I think is worth trying is the pechugas de angel. The chicken breast is prepared in a casserole dish with green chiles, sour cream and cheddar and jack cheese.

This is a restaurant worth trying. Its 31 years in Los Angeles proves that.

LA CHOZA

ADDRESS: 7402 Edinger Ave., Huntington Beach

PHONE: (714) 842-7888

CUISINE: Mexican

SPECIALTY DISH: Chile relleno

ALCOHOL SERVED: full bar

ENTRÉE PRICE RANGE: $5.95 to $13.95

FAMILY FRIENDLY: Yes

CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED: American Express, Visa and MasterCard

RATING: ***


JOHN REGER reviews restaurants for the Independent.

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