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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Dripping, Oozing and Tasty : St. Francis* BBQ in Camarillo is all about mouth-watering meat, Tennessee-style.

June 24, 1993|DAVID B. GOLDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Since January, a new, modern shopping center on the edge of the freeway in Camarillo has been serving up down-home barbecue in a sort of uptown, California atmosphere.

When you walk into the St. Francis* BBQ (don't ask me what the asterisk signifies), all you see is white--with a few slashes of bubble gum pink. White tiles, white ceilings, white walls, lots of bright sunshine flooding the place through the plate glass windows. Hardly a stain mars the Formica. No barbecue drippings, no mess.

But plenty of dripping and oozing does go on at the tables--or at home, if taken out--when you get into the hickory-cooked meats coming out of the St. Francis kitchen. Mel Johnson and his wife, Minoo, may have put four smoked shrimp ($4.95) on top of some lettuce to satisfy the Dietetically Correct, but you had best skip that sort of stuff here. What this Camarillo barbecue is about is meat--Tennessee-style.

The meat in the pork shoulder sandwich ($2.95) is tender and rich and comes on soft, fresh, doughy rolls, which, as they enter your mouth, get gushed up with the meat and the sauce.

The sauce, the sauce. Cut to the chase.

Back in the kitchen, Mel Johnson is putting the sauce together. The recipe comes, he says, from his uncle, St. Francis Armour, back in Tennessee. Some of the key seasonings are proprietary, Mel says. But the basis is vinegar and tomatoes--which many would say is what Kansas City barbecue is all about. The spicier Tennessee version at St. Francis is recommended for the pork dishes. The milder California edition gets lathered on the beef ribs, the chicken sandwich and the barbecued chicken dinner ($6.95). The meats are not cooked in the sauces--Mel Johnson feels this would dry them out.

Whether eaten with mild or spicy sauce, the chicken here is especially good, tender, fat and large. The juicy, moist chicken breast sandwich ($4.95) is for white meat lovers.

And who ever heard of a barbecue spot without hot links ($4.95 dinner)? These are spicy enough so they need very little sauce. They're the sort that burst in your mouth when you bite into them.

Some say pork baby back ribs should have meat that's falling off the bone. Others insist they should be a little chewy. I've had the baby backs ($12 per rack) both ways here. Either version is worth lugging home. The pork spare ribs ($10 per rack) are equally good, with just enough fat on them; they're spicy and juicy and wet in the sauce.

Although the beef tri-tip ($6.95 dinner), in keeping with the area, is one of the biggest sellers, I think it's the weakest dish on the menu--it needs more sauce to make up for dry meat--and the beef back ribs ($10 per rack), although they're meaty and tender are, after all, beef and not pork.

Forget the garlic bread, which is a different bread than the good stuff they use for the sandwiches. Go for lots of potato salad; it's a simple one, not too gooey and with firm potatoes and a nice, herby taste.

The beans, homemade, are all right; and the coleslaw is as simple as the potato salad, but not quite as effective.

One afternoon, I took home two slices of Minoo Johnson's cheesecake, also made on the premises ($2.25). I liked the sweet potato pie ($1.95), but the cheesecake won out, firm and moist as it was.

* WHERE AND WHEN

St. Francis* BBQ, 4952 Verdugo Way, Camarillo, 388-9555. Open for lunch and dinner and takeout 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. No liquor, no credit cards. Lunch or dinner for two, $8-$22.

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