We’re seated in a dining room dimly lit by a faux wrought-iron chandelier, Diego Rivera prints hanging in tandem with family pictures to the far corner by the kitchen. Immediately after our waitress issues her sunny welcome and before she has time to ply us for drinks, the first questions popping out of my mouth are “What does Etta James order? And what does Troy Percival like?” She seems surprised, scanning the menu as I quickly go from one item to the next, arriving on page three and pointing out Olivia’s favorite, the #2 dinner combination with cheese enchilada, chile relleno and ground beef taco. Awesome . . . Etta eats just like the rest of the universe. Thus begins my adventure at Etta’s favorite south-of-the-border-style eatery.
I hear that former Angels’ ace Troy Percival lives pretty close by and likes eating here too. After all, he who did the quick push-ups and gulped a hot cup of coffee in the bullpen minutes before stepping out to the mound to stop the Yanks in 2002 needs . . . well, serious studs needs serious chow, and Olivia’s doesn’t disappoint.
Olivia’s is named after owner Olivia Cabral, who has continued to toil behind the scenes whipping out home-style favorites daily for the last 30 years. She’s joined in the business by her husband Tony and a super-friendly family, including a son who flits from table to table talking college hoops while customers shovel food from their plates. He’s smooth, deftly handling orders and seating newly arriving diners with a finesse that goes hand-in-hand with his running commentary on the NCAA.
Despite the modest storefront and darkened interiors, this small, old-style café exudes a sense of belonging and community that permeates every nook and cranny. From the time the chunky, homemade salsa hits my palate with that pleasing zing, I know I’m in for a treat. The menu, filled with all the traditional favorites we expect of Mexican restaurants, holds much more—Italian-influenced gourmet oddities such as bacon-wrapped shrimp, citrus pepper salmon and steak picado peppering the chef’s specials. But hey, I stick to the TexMex shtick, skipping Etta’s constant and opting for a lunch-sized portion of two shrimp tacos served with rice and beans while my husband orders his beloved shredded beef chimichanga. The kids order off the Little Amigos menu (yes, there are fish and chicken nuggets as well as tacos, burritos and fried shrimp for the Mexican food averse), and we all share the new antojitos sampler, a piping hot platter of breaded mozzarella sticks, zucchini and hot and spicy shrimp served with marinara and ranch—a good beginning to a great meal.
Portions arrive in unabashed abundance (definitely a big plus for starving athletes like Troy!). Unfortunately, my husband’s beef chimichanga turns into shredded chicken, and my shrimp tacos somehow taste more like blackened fish than shellfish. Hubby makes do with his chicken, but I flag the waitress down and notify her of the snafu. Not a problem! The fish tacos are whisked back into the kitchen, heartfelt apologies exchanged, and fifteen minutes later I’m happily devouring sweet, grilled, garlic-infused shrimp, shredded cabbage and onion melting into the meaty juices and wrapped up by double corn tortillas warmed to a grainy sweetness. The chimichanga, a sinful monstrosity drenched in ranchero sauce and generous mounds of guacamole and sour cream, is flavorful and oh-so-filling.
This is my first time and while I don’t expect the friendly conversation others rightfully enjoy, Olivia herself walks by and politely asks how we’re doing. Her husband follows suit 10 minutes afterwards on his way to the foyer, right before the family settles in for the post-lunch rush eats. Cabral the younger generously provides a free package of sour candies to my kid, and all is well in this tiny universe where the troubles of the day stay outside in exchange for the warm, fuzzy feelings of comfort and recognition inside.
Olivia’s Mexican Restaurant, 9447 Magnolia Ave., Riverside, (951) 689-2131. Lunch for two, $30. Open daily. AE, DC, D, MC, V