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FAMILY FARE : PACIFIC GRILL : Well-Fed St. Nick : Visions of Sugarplums, or at Least Great Burgers, Dance in Your Head After Trip to Santa Claus Lane


I can remember, as a child, driving between Summerland and Carpinteria and seeing for the first time the great plaster Santa Claus rising out of its giant red chimney at Santa Claus Lane. When it loomed up in my vision through the window of the car, I thought it was the most thrilling thing I had ever seen. Later, of course, my enthusiasm faded--as did Santa himself, and the Lane fell into a kind of charming seediness.

Now as I whiz by my spirits lift again. Not from the newly refurbished Santa, but from the sight of a big funky sign that says BURGERS. Because now I have the satisfaction of knowing where to get the best hamburger from here to the real North Pole.

Just a few hundred feet from the ocean, Pacific Grill is located in a gray board-and-batten cottage that was once an antique shop. Now it's a hamburger stand with de rigueur floors of painted cement, a Pepsi-Cola menu board, molded plastic chairs and checkered tablecloths. But there's an unmistakable touch of class as well: too-beautiful posters of local landscapes on the walls, fresh flowers on the tables and a surprising selection of wine and beer.

The same thing is true of the food, starting with the bowl of sliced lemons set out with the condiments. A fairly ordinary breakfast, lunch and dinner menu becomes something special here. In addition to salads and sandwiches, there are 12 kinds of burgers, ranging from old standards such as double cheeseburgers to new tastes such as calamari burgers and throwbacks such as buffalo burgers.

My favorite is the sourdough burger with guacamole. The bread is a truly sour sourdough, and the freshly ground meat doesn't fall apart or drip grease. If I have any complaint it is that there's so much meat. The guacamole (slightly garlicky), fresh tomato slices and crunchy leaf lettuce are delicious in themselves.

The owner, Al Rivera, used to be in the wholesale fish business, and his wife, Sally, catered clambakes; they really know their fish. The mahi mahi burger, made with very fresh mahi mahi, is grilled not fried. A wonderful crab salad, big enough for two, comes with sliced avocado and the best lettuce imaginable. The unthickened clam chowder is chock-full of tasty, chewy clams, and the broth has a light butter and lemon flavor.

Before I ever ordered the chili at Pacific Grill I had heard it described as famous, but I thought, so what? My Uncle Bob's chili is famous; everyone's chili is famous. However, Al's specialty is a lesson in how a chili can merit its reputation. It contains tender chunks of beef and small, firm beans and has an arresting, mysterious flavor. Al, who keeps no secrets, will cheerfully give all the credit to the Santa Cruz chili powder he imports from Tubac, Ariz. I'm inclined to think that the ground coriander is what makes it so good.

When I think of Pacific Grill, I think of a hot day in early spring when I took my family. My husband, the outdoorsman, headed straight for the picnic tables under the cypress trees beyond the patio. We sat there until blue dusk. The kids played catch in the grass until it got too dark to see the ball, and I complained it was too dark to see the food. At last we convinced my husband to come indoors, into the bright and cozy restaurant, with a promise to play "Loco-Motion" on the jukebox and go for a walk on the beach after dinner. That's Pacific Grill to me.

Pacific Grill. 3765 Santa Claus Lane, Carpinteria. 684-7670. Open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Meal for one $3.25-$6.25.

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