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Pepto-BisMall : Food: Some tasty menu selections can be found at the county's three major retail centers, but customers may have to shop around.


The gaily dressed girl was eager to catch the little bugger, whatever it was. Her gaily dressed co-worker had pointed it out with an unmistakable voice of fear, pointing down into the vat of boiling oil, saying: "There, that thing floating there. What is it?"

The "it" was bobbing near my corn dog, itself boiling to a golden brown beneath the white-bright lights and gay colors of Hot Dog On A Stick, just within the second-floor entrance of The Oaks, Thousand Oaks' major shopping mall.

The more intrepid of the two servers reached beneath the fryer and came up with a pair of pliers. Swiftly she plunged their jaws into the roiling caldron and carefully trolled through the cooking oil for the--ahem, floater.

The shiny chrome tool (was it ever used on a bathroom fixture?) came within an inch of my dog. (No doubt germs would be killed in the boiling, but not without also killing the fiercest of appetites.)

There, she's got it: a harmless little piece of corn bread that had dislodged from an earlier frying.

Within seconds the girl also snatched my dog from the oil, turned it right side up, sheathed its stick in paper, and presented it to me with care, as if extending a microphone to record my vapor-lock horror.

"There you are, sir," she said gaily. "Lemonade?"

Indeed. Lemonade.

I'll cross the tiny food court and instead console myself with a Mrs. Powell's cinnamon roll, a culinary acre of dough and sugar capable of sending any metabolism reeling with pleasure before pushing it over the great glycemic cliff and into an abyss of carbo stultification.

To wrap things up, I'll clamber on downstairs to J.G.'s Espresso bar and knock back, or try with a grimace to knock back, a cafe latte that is overly acidic and bitter, hardly the tonic necessary for a happy merge back onto the 101.

Oh, mall dining.

An oxymoron, you say?

Not true, despite the foibles wrought by cheerful but hapless high schoolers manning so many of the mall's eateries. It is possible, in fact, to take a presentable meal at any one of Ventura County's three major malls: fragrant cheese and chicken quesadillas at Maritere's at the Buenaventura Mall in Ventura; imaginatively spiced multicolored fresh pappardelle at The Magic Pan at The Oaks; and abundant, deeply flavored fajitas at Yolie's Mexican Cafe at The Esplanade in Oxnard. But it is difficult to consistently eat, or even snack, well.

You are, after all, shopping. And none of these malls--unlike the more upscale and trendy centers to the south of us, such as Santa Monica Place or Glendale Galleria--offers an array of dining options so compelling in their own right as to entice people to the mall first to eat and then, if inclined, to shop.

The result is thus a hodgepodge, mostly over-the-counter fast food mixed with over-the-counter snacks. Some establishments are familiar sights to the weary shopper, others unwittingly retro in appearance and menu, and yet others so luminous (read LOUD) in their facades as to seem straight from the grand concourse of the county fair.

Take The Oaks: Orange Julius. Best Chinese. McDonald's. Yogurt Connection. Sweeney's. Carl's Jr. Taco Bell. Cafe California. Mrs. Field's Cookies. The list climbs to 20 in all.

Or The Esplanade: Swensen's. Oyster Bay. Tony's Pizza. Pretzels 'N Things. Tokyo Teriyaki. New China.

Or Buenaventura: Creative Croissants. Chinese Combo King. Sbarro. Fosters Junior Freeze. Hot Sam. Corn Dog. A&W Hot Dogs.

It wasn't planned this way, exactly.

It came out this way most of all because of mall age. Ventura County's malls were built before 1980, when mall dining was a very low priority among mall developers. As a result, large and appealing food courts were not designed into Ventura County malls, leaving their management in the 1980s in a game of catch-up in turning over space to food purveyors who might contribute to a more appealing array of choices.

But that's easier said than done.

"We've got limited seating because our food area wasn't really designed as a food court," says Pam Hartwell, manager of The Esplanade. "And so it's difficult to get the (food) tenants you want." This, despite the fact that 6,000 people pour through the place on an average weekday--a modest number by mall standards but a volume of paying customers that merchants in our atrophied, off-the-highway town centers would envy on any day of the week. Still, you have to have the right space and facilities to make it work, to make it pay.

Hartwell used to work at Glendale's Galleria, whose restaurants are so varied and good that it draws a non-shopping lunchtime business crowd. She is acutely aware of The Esplanade's food limits. "It's not that we're not doing well--we are. We're simply not meeting our customers' expectations," she says. "Right now, and we're working to change this, we don't really have the variety."

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