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FOOD REVIEW : The Good, the Bad and the Ugly


Fair's fair. Not every place got tested. No doubt, there are stars that went unseen, culinary successes that went unsavored.

Even of those tested, samples were limited. It was learned, for example, that CVS drugstore employees at The Oaks--who should know better than mall workers?--swear by the food at Olga's, possibly the mall's most popular sit-down restaurant. But in two visits, two duds were served, one of them amid the dust of a teen-age employee's nearby carpet-sweeping. Perhaps the CVS crowd orders differently.

Good luck, hungry shopper.

Clearly, the task at hand was not to graze through the full menus of nearly 40 food purveyors renting space in Ventura County's three major malls. Instead, it was this: to act like a shopper by going to the mall and impulsively, even arbitrarily, dropping in on the place that seemed most promising at any given moment. Sometimes that was for a full, sit-down dinner. Other times, a quick stand-up snack.

A word about standards, finally. Whether a slice of pizza on the run or a fancy seafood meal in a restaurant, comparisons were made the same way: for freshness, for flavor, for cleanliness and for the care with which the food was served. That's why it's better, if you're at The Esplanade, to stick with something so modest as a plain, ungreasy, flavorful slice of Tony's Pizza and avoid the more ambitious but over-sauced, gluey, leaden chicken curry at New China.

The Oaks

With by far the most choices available, The Oaks can nonetheless vex. Restaurants and snack bars alike are sprinkled throughout the vast, two-story mall. So don't change your mind once at Best Chinese, whose sliced pork glows so radiantly beneath a dyed red sauce that it went unordered, and decide to head to the fancier Cafe California; that's a good 12-minute trek, even if you know how to find the cafe, tucked away up on the third floor of The Broadway.

Easily the best meal taken here was at The Magic Pan, at the mall's center entrance and outpost of the San Francisco-based chain that built a reputation in oh-so-quaint crepes. The menu's been updated, happily, and recently featured an authentic, well-turned-out Caesar salad and a highly imaginative pasta dish of multicolored pappardelle with chicken and a sauce of mushrooms, garlic, white wine and unlikely jalapenos ($8.95). Service was excellent and so against mall-grain: mature, informed, responsive, solicitous. The Magic Pan features the mall's only full bar, which makes wines available by the glass. The dining room here reaches for English salon and nearly grabs it; in any event, it's great mall refuge.

The corn dog has its adherents, and I am one. After the pliers episode (see main story), I decided to catch Hot Dog on a Stick another day in a brighter mood. It worked. Is there a more frivolously American taste than the hot dog cloaked in perfectly fried corn bread spiked with yellow mustard? Not for $1.50. And not in this mall. The real lemonade here only amplifies this franchise's philosophy: Do a few things well. If you're on the run, and if the servers aren't wielding mechanic's tools, this place is the ticket.

Sweeney's is one of the sweeter environments here: softly lit wood booths and overhead fans for that old-time feel, with wonderful service to boot. Sadly, the menu's highly touted spinach salad was overwhelmed by ultraviscous Italian dressing, underserved by cold, fatty and flavorless bacon (last week's?) and set atop two broad romaine leaves, the freshest in the bowl. Special sandwich of the day? Turkey club. Pressed turkey loaf, the same very dead bacon, with lettuce--passable but not worth the trouble or the $5.95.

Pizza of darkest distinction: Round Table's by the slice ($1.65). This is a pepperoni wedge with enough counter time for the stiff crust to leach plenty of grease and the cheese to harden up. Plainly, tire tread.

Snack of darkest distinction: Pretzel With Cheese's pretzel with cheese ($1.15). Stale pretzel, for the cardboard effect. The dollop of orange process cheese food in the little paper cup? A plastic knife with which to spackle it on? Whose idea is this?

Coffee, both ways: an unfortunate, bitter cafe latte ($1.60) from a gorgeous Gaggia machine at the prominent G. J.'s Espresso Bar, reaching for the piazza vibe. Better luck with plain brews--Kenyan, Guatemalan among them--upstairs at the somewhat precious Gloria Jean's Coffee Bean.

Feeling sad? Cheer up at Mrs. Powell's Cinnamon Rolls, where $1.65 buys a baseball diamond of eggy dough beneath a mantle of sugar and cinnamon. There's no apology for anything this marvelously grotesque and satisfying, but then you'll only do it once, maybe twice a year. It's as sure a bet as the corn dog.

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