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RESTAURANT REVIEW JOANNAFINA'S : Hearty Tamales : Situated just a stone's throw from the beach, this cozy place in Ventura offers good food and a friendly atmosphere.

December 05, 1991|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

My laconic friend from Texas is fiercely loyal to Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex food, greatly preferring it to California cuisine of any kind. So I brought him some take-out from Joannafina's just to get his opinion. He loved it.

He would have loved the decor too. Just a stone's throw from the beach on Seaward Avenue, the restaurant is as tiny as a burger shack and as colorful as a Mexican fiesta. In pink, with aqua-turquoise trim, the tiny room (alongside a tiny patio) is dotted with sombreros, pinatas and ceramic imports. Brightly painted chairs of every hue, and tables covered with vivid, floral oil clothes make the place sing. One entire wall is a Polaroid print patchwork of happy customers surrounding a lone, moody head shot of Harrison Ford.

In the evenings, the coziness here comes from the scarlet neon glowing through the windows, and the homey, hot greasy smell of the fresh-fried tortilla chips (really good ones). A steady stream of customers, some arriving on skateboards, others in Range Rovers, appear and put in their requests for take-out meals.

They're even starting to fill orders for Christmas tamales.

Tamales were eaten by the Aztecs and might even predate cooking utensils, since they were originally made by stuffing corn dough into cornhusks and burying them in the hot ashes of a fire. Today, a Mexican Christmas without tamales is much like Thanksgiving without turkey, and the locals have discovered Joannafina's tamales in a big way. Last year thousands of them went out the door.

These hearty tamales ($2.35) have a homemade goodness, with a thick layer of corn dough and a variety of fillings. Beef and pork, both well-flavored, are the most popular, but they also make chicken, vegetarian and sweet tamales.

Even better than the tamales, I think, are the chile rellenos, which come with a generous sauce of melted cheese, tomatoes and onions. The green chile in this dish retains its delicious identity.

The burritos are as stuffed as a grandmother's couch. A three-way chicken burrito with meat, rice and beans ($3.25) had plenty of chicken--stringy and a little dry but with a tasty, interesting flavor. A cheese enchilada came with enough sour cream for five of them. The super quesadillas consisted of melted cheese inside a crusty flour tortilla that had been folded to make a pocket filled with guacamole, lettuce and sour cream.

The small salads, served as with all the food on throw-away plates, were made with iceberg lettuce but had a refreshing homemade oil and vinegar dressing. Guacamole was excellent although not highly seasoned. Nor was the salsa very spicy; it seemed more a sweet condiment. If you want killer salsa, you should probably bring your own. The first time I ate here there was plenty of cilantro in the food, but on a subsequent visit it was missed. Perhaps they had run out early that day.

The soft tacos received the highest acclaim from my Texan friend. They come with double tortillas and well-seasoned meats such as chile Verde or pork in barbecue sauce. A generous combination plate consisting of two soft tacos with rice, beans and salad comes to a reasonable $5.95.

The wine is soda-pop caliber, but there are several dozen types of beer. No deserts here, but the chips and salsa are as satisfying at the end of the meal as at the beginning.

Sometimes you can get a revealing sense of the impulse behind a restaurant. It came to me while sitting in Joannafina's that someone must have said: "I think I'll open up a little place where I can make really good food and be just as nice as possible to the people who come in my door." And that's what happened.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Joannafina's, 1127 Seaward Ave., Ventura, (805) 652-0360. Open every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Wine and beer. American Express accepted. Dinner for two, food only $6 to $14.

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