Judging by the small, cluttered storefront window, you'd never imagine what you will find inside Cocoa's Place. Even when you get inside, the huge variety of candies, baked goods, coffees, teas, cocoas, sandwiches and hot dishes makes it hard to understand what's going on here. Is this a candy store, I asked myself, a bakery, a lunch room or--that all-encompassing contemporary term--a deli?
What it is, actually, is a superb place for lunch.
Let me skip blithely by the quality cocoas and coffees available in this casual, order-at-the-counter restaurant. And let's deal only momentarily with the Italian creme sodas, concocted of seltzer, cream and one of 16 luscious Italian flavorings. (I tilted toward the blackberry and the chocolate mint.)
Let us not tarry too long with some of the house specialties--the sandwiches. (Although if sandwiches are your area of interest, you'd do very well with the prime rib model; fairly rare, it is served, along with the usual condiments, on your choice of several breads made on the premises.)
Nor would I necessarily urge upon anyone the deep-fried shrimp, deep-fried clams or fish and chip dishes. (Although they are served with what are called Cocoa's fries--crisp curly cues which are on the medium to upper end of the French fry scale.)
Because it's the hot dishes, limited in number though they may be, and a certain salad, where Mr. Cocoa Berken really comes into his own.
You can't miss Cocoa. That's him in the chef's hat, taking orders, bringing dishes to the tables, chatting up his guests. An obvious professional, he spent 17 years as an executive chef with U.S. embassies in such exotic locations as Istanbul, London and Paris.
Someplace between Istanbul and Ventura (he opened here about six months ago), Cocoa has come up with an outstanding chili. He serves it inside a hallowed out mini-loaf of round French bread so that when the chili is gone, you still have the chili-soaked bread to contend with. Instead of using conventional ground chili meat, Cocoa uses chunks of roast beef and pastrami, lots of beans--and just the right spicing. As a side dish there is usually a very good Caesar salad.
The pasta with vegetable marinara sauce and meatballs is another winner. The vegetables (squash, cauliflower, broccoli and carrots) are still crisp when they come to the table, and the meatballs have dodged that meatball hazard--dryness.
Almost everything is cooked from scratch. Cocoa roasts his own beef and turkey, and that is probably the secret of the success of the great creamed turkey dish. Substantial chunks of turkey are served, like the chili, in a mini-French loaf.
A couple of caveats: Avoid the sometimes-too-garlicky coleslaw, and stress that your party would like to be served at the same time. If one of you is having a sandwich and the other a hot dish you might end up with staggered service.
And don't be fooled by the baked goods--which can be uneven. The breads, some of which come in mini-loafs, are all excellent, as is the rich German chocolate cheesecake. But the apple turnover one day turned out to be no better than the usual commercial variety--corn syrupy and unsatisfying.
On the other hand, those coming in for coffee and pastries in the morning get outstanding scones and rich, flaky croissants. Cocoa's Place is also a great place for breakfast.
WHERE AND WHEN
Cocoa's Place, 1437 S. Victoria Ave., Ventura, 650-2626, fax 650-7370. Delivery available. Open Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Major credit cards accepted. Lunch for two, $12-$25.