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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Peruvian Restaurant Serves Up a Meal Rich in Taste and Diversity : Some dishes worth trying at the Spanish Fountain in Ventura are inspired by the Chinese, Italians and Indians.

August 12, 1993|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I first discovered the Spanish Fountain restaurant late one afternoon after a stimulating but exhausting prowl through the thrift and antique stores along Main Street in Ventura. It was almost 3 o'clock and I was starving. But I hesitated to go in.

If this was a Spanish restaurant, or "the House of the Paella," as the sign on the window proclaimed, why did another sign try to entice patrons with the offer of hamburgers, fries and hot dogs? What kind of place was this?

The small storefront restaurant was empty and curiously refreshing. It had been cocooned with brown lattice, from which hung artificial plants. The effect was almost grotto-like. Covering one wall was one of those giant photo murals of scenic greenery, popular in dentist offices in the '60s.

It may have been the odd, late hour or the serene atmosphere, but it turned out to be a lovely experience. I was served by a man who communicated mainly in gestures. He cooked for me the most wonderful pork chop with slivered onions and perfectly plain, delicious rice and beans. By the time I finished, I felt as if I had walked into a slightly funky fairy tale, and was mysteriously and marvelously nourished.

As it turns out, the Spanish Fountain actually is a Peruvian restaurant, opened just five months ago. For the caliber of the food, the prices are remarkably reasonable. The menu offers many of the classics of Peruvian cuisine, so don't even bother with hamburgers or hot dogs.

The ceviche appetizer alone is a good enough reason to visit the restaurant. Though common to all Latin American countries, ceviche originated in Peru. They do the dish proud here. It consisted very simply of excellent, lime-cooked fish, very thinly sliced onions and just enough cilantro and chilies to add intrigue.

Peruvian food has been greatly influenced by the Chinese, who came to work in the mines, as well as by the many Italians who settled there. In the restaurant, this is reflected in two of the best dishes on the menu. Tallarin saltado is a Chinese-inspired dish described as " lo mein Peruvian style." A marvelous stir fry of tiny bits of beef with plain noodles and smooth green Chinese vegetables--snow peas, scallions, green peppers and bok choy--it had a pleasing, buttery-mushroom flavor.

From the Italians came the tallarines verdes , a plate of simple, very good pasta with fresh pesto sauce that was covered with a generous piece of thin, breaded, fried steak as salty and tasty as ham.

A native Peruvian dish, papa a la huancaina , originally devised by Indians (the first people to grow potatoes), was made with cold boiled potatoes and covered with a subtle cheese sauce, both creamy and spicy. The dish I tried was unfortunately marred by mealy-textured potatoes, undoubtedly not grown in Peru.

Another potato disappointment was that the lomito saltado , a stir fry of beef and vegetables, was served on top of ordinary French fries. This was a mistake. French fries are no substitute for the fine home fries of Peruvian cooking. The rice alone would have been fine. Ignoring the fries, however, the dish was quite decent.

Fish dishes are definitely a good bet here. Steamed Peruvian-style fish (shrimp one particular day) came with a curiously appetizing, creamy red sauce with peppers, onions and fresh tomatoes. Camaron al ajo are small, curly shrimps with a thick garlic sauce, so strong it was woodsy.

If you happen to go for dinner and order the superb paella ($14.95), you will see that they fully deserve the appellation: "House of the Paella." Prepared for a minimum of two people, it consisted of glorious mounds of hot, saffron-colored rice dotted with red peppers and pale green peas. Succulent rice was imbued with flavor from a cornucopia of fish and shellfish, including great big mussels, clams and shrimp, as well as tender chicken, pork and hard-boiled eggs.

Two modest desserts were offered, flan and rice pudding, both as simple and winsome as a nursery rhyme. The flan was as good as it gets, with enough texture to prove it didn't come from a box. The rice pudding was cool and refreshing, with a hint of rose water and a dash of cinnamon. Both came with shallow pools of sharply sweet caramel sauce. Finally, a cup of Peruvian coffee was better than most latte and cappuccino drinks served at more conceited restaurants.

Eating at the Spanish Fountain was like being a guest at the modest home of a very distinctive cook. And you don't even have to wait for an invitation to return.

* WHERE AND WHEN

The Spanish Fountain, 256 E. Main St., Ventura (805) 653-0766. Open for lunch and dinner, Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Closed Sunday. Wine and beer. Mastercard and Visa. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$30.

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