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RESTAURANT REVIEW / COTTAGE CAFE : Roadside Favorites : The homey atmosphere is the perfect setting for American specialties ranging from pork chops to waffles.

August 27, 1992|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Cottage Cafe goes a long way toward fulfilling the friendly, cozy promise of its name. It's a place where the waitresses notice that their customers' babies have learned to walk. It's so homey, in fact, that one easily imagines the help returning to eat and hang out on their days off.

That said, I still question the word cottage and its English connotation. What we have here is pure Americana: green vinyl booths, brown linoleum, plenty of wood paneling with a smattering of brick--possibly fake--and a proud coffee mug collection shelved on the wall. It's much closer to a wide-bodied house trailer than any kind of a cottage.

Name problems aside, I liked it right away. But I still had to give it the hamburger test first. If a place can't fix a decent hamburger, forget it. It passed with flying colors. Especially the trick question: Is bigger really better? (It isn't.) What they served here was a perfectly nice little hamburger, whose bun quickly became subservient to the filling. This included good meat, sweet red onions, a thin slab of pickle and generous slices of tomato. So far so good.

The Cottage Cafe is only open until 2 p.m., and you can order breakfast any time. On the weekends, you may find specials such as pork chops and eggs ($6.25) or a fresh peach and cinnamon waffle ($3.75).

We went straight to the heart of the classic roadside breakfast: country fried steak and eggs ($6.95). It rivaled what can be found at any given truck stop in El Paso or random cafe in Colorado City. Properly prepared with Swiss steak (easier to cut), it was covered with gravy as white as proverbial snow. It came with country fried potatoes--both plenty crispy and plenty soft. The biscuits on the side would have been the envy of the Bisquick testing kitchens.

Eggs ranchero began with a single corn tortilla and several eggs over easy, topped with a nice salsa full of crisp chunks of simply delicious beans. A different salsa on the table had another cast of ingredients and an appealing, sunny sweetness.

On weekdays, the chalkboard by the register is filled with lunch specials (Swiss steak dinner, sloppy Joe salad, Oriental chicken vegetable) that could easily serve as the main meal of the day. The menu itself consists of mostly classic sandwiches for people who always know what they want. Bacon, lettuce and tomato with avocado was state-of-the-art. The bacon was awesomely crisp and the mayonnaise generously spread.

Hot corned beef, assiduously salty, was served on grilled rye bread and came with a welcome mild coleslaw. A Malibu chicken sandwich was a righteous jaw stretcher. It featured a delectable piece of fried chicken, two kinds of cheese and a slew of ham slices, also on the salty side. Fresh tomatoes and onions gave it added height and zest.

The Cottage Cafe is an uncommonly pleasant place to go by yourself. You can let the waitress pamper you while you work up some serious daydreams, propelled by the sad wailing of country music in the background. On the other hand, it's also a good place to go with a friend and share a road trip fantasy. This restaurant could be mistaken for any decent eatery in any state or town you might prefer being in at the moment.

* WHERE AND WHEN

The Cottage Cafe, 1907 E. Thompson Blvd., Ventura, (805) 643-1231. Breakfast and lunch, Monday-Friday 6 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Beer and wine. Breakfast for one $3.30-$10.85.

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