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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Reuben in an Egg Roll? : Santa Barbara Cafe is at its best with more robust dishes. The new owner, due to take over next month, plans to keep many of his predecessor's recipes.

July 30, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life

I realize the Pacific Rim is moving ever closer, but I never thought that I would see the day when a Reuben sandwich came wrapped up in an egg roll.

I ate my first Reuben during the late '60s at Rennebohm's Drug Store in Madison, Wis., and remember thinking that the concoction of corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut on grilled rye bread was a waste of good corned beef.

Now, Santa Barbara Cafe is one block from Art's Deli, where the best corned beef sandwich in the San Fernando Valley awaits the purist. At Art's, you just smear with a little deli mustard and enjoy. At Santa Barbara Cafe, you may not be quite sure how to proceed.

You'll probably agree that this is a pleasant neighborhood place, although a far cry from Art's or Weby's Bakery, two adjacent icons on this stretch of Ventura Boulevard. It's a long, boxy, dimly lit place with a tacky, unfinished floor and lots of too-tall tables. The walls have been nicely sponged up and remind you of those found in most any upscale Tex-Mex cafe.

The current owner, Barbara Roche, started out in the film business and is selling SBC to return to it.

"I'm bored," she says. The new owner, Pete Karkos, plans to bring in a new chef but use a good number of Roche's recipes. (The transition is scheduled for August. According to Roche, some remodeling is planned, but no major changes.)

Karkos comes from Maba's Pastas in North Hollywood (which supplies the fresh noodles you eat here), so pasta, already a big part of the menu here, should get an even larger part of the spotlight when he takes command.

"I found out the hard way," Roche says, "that people in this part of the Valley don't want to eat red meat." That could be one reason she is leaving because, at present, this cafe is at its best with the more robust dishes.

The best dish I tried here is probably Barbara's spicy meatloaf, which the kitchen will also make with turkey for those who disdain beef. It's a dense loaf flecked with green chili and scallion and powerfully spiked with cumin, with the surprise addition of pine nuts. Have it with an order of Santa Barbara mashed potatoes--lumpy mashed potatoes topped with a pile of chopped green onion--and you'll leave a happy camper.

The beginning of a meal can be shaky, though. That Reuben egg roll would be a bad idea even if perfectly executed. It is cut in half for you, but that doesn't mean that this is going to be easy. Once you get past the crisp outer skin, you have to wrestle the slices of corned beef out with your teeth, and the whole thing ends up falling apart. Furthermore, it's all bound up with a surfeit of Dijon-style mustard, instead of the properly Reubenish German type. Sacre bleu.

Something called a Santa Barbara chile relleno doesn't fare much better. It's a tasty Anaheim chile in an oddly crumbly blue-corn batter, with an unusually gooey cheese filling that drools out aggressively when the initial incision is made.

You're better off having one of the good, fresh salads. The Caesar may skimp on the anchovies, but it's a spendthrift with chopped garlic. Tahineh chicken salad is unusually dense. A scoop of white meat chicken, ground nearly into a paste with sesame sauce, comes on a bed of bok choy leaves and other '90s greens. You eat this mondo bizarro Pacific Rim/Middle Eastern salad with an unctuous sesame oil dressing.

Pastas like black and white fettuccine, spinach fettuccine and tomato linguine are tasty when not overcooked, although the recipes might just be a little too busy. Southwestern fajita pasta, for instance, gets marinated chicken, bell pepper and onion in a spicy red sauce. Scampi pasta uses jumbo shrimp sauteed with garlic, green onion, red peppers and a lemon-lime butter.

The other entrees are mostly ordinary. California grill consists of three skewers, one with spice-rubbed chicken breast, one with a greasy Cajun-style sausage, the third containing a couple of scallops and a couple of shrimp. Vegetarian stir fry is zucchini, carrot, mushroom and onion done up in a simple sweet-and-hot sauce, which to my taste is just too sweet. And roast chicken, a large half portion, is ho-hum, despite having been rubbed with a nine-spice mixture dominated by the taste of cumin powder. Hey, maybe if they wrapped one up inside an egg roll skin. . . .

WHERE AND WHEN

Location: Santa Barbara Cafe, 12159 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.

Suggested Dishes: Caesar salad, $6.50; tahineh chicken salad, $7.75; Barbara's spicy meatloaf, $9.75; southwestern fajita pasta, $9.75.

Hours: Lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 to 9 p.m. Sundays; brunch 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays. No alcohol (beer and wine when new management takes over). Parking in rear lot.

Price: MasterCard and Visa. Dinner for two, $20 to $35.

Call: (818) 760-1111.

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