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RESTAURANT REVIEW : 4 Places Where the Food Can Be Counted On to Hit the Spot : The offerings range from Vietnamese-style shrimp to sushi to New England lobster to Caesar salad.

January 20, 1994|DAVID B. GOLDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Some of us will go miles, drive for hours, brave snow, sleet and hail to satisfy the cravings of our palates. Well, perhaps not snow and sleet.

And, anyhow, we don't get much of any of that around these parts.

Myself, when I feel one of these gustatory demands coming on, I notice that they always seem to demand a particular type of food--frequently seafood--and most often a particular dish at a particular place. So I've developed a sort of mental map of certain places around the county toward which my humble six-cylinder steed seems almost to turn automatically when it hears me snort, sensing that, behind the wheel, I am already salivating.

One Sunday afternoon, for instance, I realized that I just had to taste, that very second, the contrasting flavors so defining in Vietnamese cuisine. My tongue seemed to long for the mixture of sweet and sour, spices and salt, which I knew I'd find at a certain modest storefront restaurant in Simi Valley.

And so we were off to Tea Sympathy, where My Linh Le and Kai Le dish out their garlic-roasted shrimp ($6.25). The shellfish itself is always firm, not overcooked, and slightly salted. Their tart in a white coffee sauce ($6) always seems to have just a burnt trace and is crusty on the edges, very chocolaty without being too much so, and rich in the middle, but not too sweet.

Every once in a while, overcome perhaps by a feeling of virtue in dining, I feel this strong urge for a Caesar salad, although until recently I could easily ignore even a good Caesar, and didn't care at all for anchovies. Which is why I find it just a bit weird to be heading to Cocoa's Place, in a corner of a Ventura shopping center.

Cocoa's is a combination bakery, cafe, candy store. A patisserie, they like to call it. And, although the service can be nearly nonexistent, it's still a worthwhile stop for lovers of Caesar salad ($6.95). Theirs is a crisp romaine, done, I think, with soybean oil, and salt and pepper, chopped anchovies, garlic, vinegar, sugar, eggs and paprika, Parmesan cheese and croutons.

Have I mentioned that one of my most frequent, strongest cravings is for sushi?

It is a craving that draws me to Juro'Cho, down on Seaward Avenue a block from the water in Ventura, run by husband and wife George and Tomi Lee and his mother, Maggie. The funny thing is that, although I like the sushi in this tiny neighborhood spot, the two dishes I like most have nothing to do with rice, or with seaweed.

My favorite dish at Juro'Cho is usually a special on the blackboard. It is the yellowtail collar ($6.95). Only two from each fish, they are quite rich, cooked gently on the grill in a covered pan, with the house teriyaki sauce.

Second on the list of Japanese delights is the hot and cold sashimi ($6). The piece of raw bluefin tuna, moist and succulent, sits on the grill for just a few moments, to be seared, and then Maggie lathers it with a sauce of sweet Saki and soy and perhaps rice vinegar--and then puts it in front of you--with just a touch of an almost-Mexican salsa sprinkled on top. In your mouth is the aroma of the slightly charred fish, the sauce and the salsa--superb.

Not too far away, upstairs at Ventura Harbor Village, with views out over the harbor and the ocean, sits Tucks Point. Tucks is where I go in Ventura when I have a yen for lobster. You can get fresh New England lobster ($20.95 to $26.95) here, and it's excellent. But perhaps easier on the wallet is the New England grilled lobster roll ($12.95). It comes in that old East Coast standby--Sunshine rolls, overflowing with chunks of lobster and good mayonnaise.

And if you're really ravenous, go on to the fried oysters ($12.95), large and juicy and plump and heavily breaded in fresh oil.

Details

* WHAT: Tea Sympathy.

* WHERE: 1470 Los Angeles Ave., Simi Valley.

* ETC: Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $9 to $20. Call 527-4055.

* WHAT: Cocoa's Place.

* WHERE: 1437 Victoria Ave., Ventura.

* ETC: Lunch for two, food only, $13 to $27. Call 650-2626.

* WHAT: Juro'Cho.

* WHERE: 1054 Seaward Ave., Ventura.

* ETC: Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $15 to $30. Call 652-0382.

* WHAT: Tucks Point.

* WHERE: 1567 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura.

* ETC: Lunch for two, food only, $15 to $55. Dinner for two, food only, $18 to $70. Call 644-2644.

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