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RESTAURANT REVIEW : The Good, the Bad and the Barbecued : Oxnard eatery can turn out some tasty dishes, but there are also some disappointments.

March 10, 1994|LEONARD REED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Gorilla Grill is a fairly new establishment facing Oxnard Boulevard, just across from The Esplanade mall and south of the 101. Its name, and the mural of a gorilla across one interior wall, tell nothing of its cuisine and certainly betray the warmth of its staff.

The space is high-ceilinged and cavernous, with lonely overhead lighting, and divided quite plainly in two: a dining area, with booths and open tables, and a bar that features TVs and a few open tables. For all the attempts at light-hearted zoo theme, it's impossible, on first visit, to get a line on what type of establishment this is. L.A.'s Monkey Bar trades on exotic themes, audaciously exotic cuisine, and the kitschy risk of its name. But Oxnard's Gorilla Grill seems to be designed for an inevitable response by first timers: Gorilla Grill? What's that?

So much for the proverbial hook. Scan the menu and you'll find that the Gorilla Grill is another barbecue house bolstered by an extensive listing of pasta and alternate-choice dishes. So much for identity.

Eating here can be satisfying. Or frustrating. Or bleak.

In one moment the kitchen turns out a perfect rosy New York steak, deep in flavor and trim in cut; but in the next will deliver a plate of squid so over-breaded and insufficiently fried as to be inedible, with zero redemption offered by the plain ketchup accompaniment.

For every tender, soulful helping of barbecued tri-tip lurks a pale, wan (parboiled?) set of barbecued baby back ribs whose trace coating of sweet, bland barbecue sauce barely commands notice.

Still, you can do well here. The house is, if anything, excessively concerned with your well-being--offering a rare guarantee of pleasure in this day of uninformed, mannerless servers. But choose from the menu carefully.

Avoid the squid. But among appetizers do try the armadillo eggs ($5.95), in which Cheddar cheese is wrapped in hot green chile, breaded, quick-fried, and served with a Ranch dipping sauce. They're original, richly flavorful and perfectly executed. Fried mozzarella sticks ($4.75) are handled as well but left in the lurch, somewhat, by a bland tomato dip.

Caesar salad ($6.50) is decent and fresh, but not so good when ordered with chicken breast ($8.25) that turns out wanting for flavor.

Smoked chicken pasta ($8.95) has delicious touches with deep smoky chicken pieces and flavorful pesto-cream sauce. Alas, the dish is marred by mushy, overcooked tube noodles.

At heart, The Gorilla Grill is a meat house. So the New York steak ($13.25) is a winner, even if it did arrive without the whole roasted garlic advertised on the menu. Beef ribs are generously proportioned and flavorful, grilled as they are over a mesquite fire, though they wear the too-sweet house sauce; they're the clear choice over the boring baby back ribs ($10.95).

Half chicken ($10.25), which is marinated in teriyaki sauce before expert treatment on the barbecue, is truly first-rate: charred outside, succulent and sweet within.

Most dishes here arrive with chili beans, suitably smoky and cooked, happily, to retain firmness, or a perfect baked potato; and soup or salad.

Go for that casual midweek meal, enjoy the friendly service and dark beer on tap, and pick from among the steak or chicken dishes for the most promising meal.

Details

* WHAT: The Gorilla Grill

* WHERE: 2639 Wagon Wheel Road, Oxnard

* WHEN: Lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

* FYI: American Express, Visa, MasterCard accepted. Dinner for two, food only: $25 to $40. Call 983-3474.

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