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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Cafe's Exquisite Empanadas Served With Side of Frustration : The service is so-so, and half the menu items aren't available on several visits. Will he go back? You bet.

March 17, 1994|DAVID B. GOLDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Just what do you say about a tiny restaurant where the food is delicious but the service haphazard, and--most frustrating of all--half the items on an already limited menu are often not available?

What I say is that it's horribly aggravating, but I'd go back. The Argentine empanadas, which are meat or vegetable turnovers, and the vegetable and chicken pies at Ventura's Cafe Bariloche are good enough to keep drawing me there.

At the tiny, modest, 20-seat restaurant across the street from Ventura's downtown post office, owner Angelique Lopez is serving (in a sometimes scattered manner) some of the best, most traditional empanadas and savory pies this side of Buenos Aires.

The cuisine, it turns out, is a meeting of the minds--and the recipes--of Lopez and Italian chef Francisco Perry. This confluence probably accounts for traces of Italian touches in the vegetables, says Lopez.

"He usually does what he likes," she noted. "It's the way he cooks, plus my own recipes."

None of this lessens my frustration. I went to the cafe several days in a row, looking for some variety. But was I able to eat tuna empanadas, or potato empanadas, or those made with broccoli, all of which are on the menu? No. Every day, the available empanadas were the same: vegetable, chicken, corn-pumpkin.

But what you get is so good.

When you order more than one empanada, the way to discern which is which is to consult the menus on the counter. On the back are diagrams showing that the vegetable model, for instance, is coated with poppy seeds, and that the crust on the chicken one is trimmed with a certain scallop design.

At lunch one day, we sat scrunched into our seats, surrounded by surrealistic wall murals and with "happy rocks" on each table; the theme here is "the garden of earthly delights." Then the empanadas arrived.

The empanada comes in an excellent homemade crust and is crammed with filling. The chicken version ($2) bulges with juicy, boned dark meat from the thigh, plus green bell peppers, onions, olive oil, herbs and spices.

It is moderately spicy and, although my tongue is still trying to figure out just what the spice is, Lopez claims that it's simply lots of pepper. The hot Argentine delicacy is filled with flavors that merge beautifully inside your mouth.

The corn-pumpkin empanada ($2) is slightly sweet, with crunchy kernels of corn and the contrasting flavors of green and black olives, raisins, herbs and spices. Perhaps this one is best eaten first, since it is probably the mildest of the empanadas.

Cafe Bariloche also serves the best potato dish around--surely the best in downtown Ventura. They call it bionic potatoes, and what you get is a large plate of big potato cubes, unpeeled, served hot and covered with the Cafe's own "Argentine sauce," a mildly spicy mixture of vinegar, olive oil and certain herbs and spices--none of which Lopez will divulge, but from which sage and thyme seem to speak out.

I'd like to be able to say that the sandwiches on the menu are good--or different, or distinctive--and I bet they are. The cafe just has never had the Milanesa sandwich ($4.50), a thin piece of steak that is breaded and deep-fried, when I was there. Nor did it have the eggplant sandwich with the garden salad ($6.25).

I did get a couple of cracks at the veggie empanada ($2.50), which is simply outstanding. It's filled with fresh spinach and green and black olives, and also the usual herbs and spices, plus brown rice and, perhaps the most distinctive flavor--fresh cilantro.

One evening, we showed up at Cafe Bariloche for dinner. I'd been looking forward to trying the beef and olive pie ($7.89). It was, the menu said, served with salad and bread and was full of all sorts of good things. No such luck. How about the turkey pie ($7.89)? The turkey had apparently flown south for the evening. More frustration.

So we ordered a few empanadas, the usual selection--chicken, vegetable and corn-pumpkin--and the only two pies available.

Then the pies arrived, and we were willing to forgive the fact that it took 15 minutes to get something to drink, that one pair of empanadas may have arrived 15 minutes after the first, and that the beef and olives pie was just not going to be here this evening.

The chicken pie ($7.89), a substantial dish in a hot, oblong casserole, is made with the thigh meat, with peppers, herbs, spices and onions, and covered with a crust of seasoned mashed potatoes. It's a hearty, very satisfying dish.

But it was its companion, the vegetable pie ($7.89), that is the single dish that would draw me back to Cafe Bariloche. And you're talking here to a red-meat guy. The pie has the same vegetable empanada filling--the fresh spinach, olives, brown rice, zucchini and herbs. But the dish is served with a substantial layer of crisp mozzarella cheese--I suspect this is the Italian influence of chef Perry. The spicing is just superb.

There's no liquor at all here. The drinks are things like mate green tea, espresso Bariloche or lemon tonic.

Details

* WHAT: Cafe Bariloche.

* WHERE: 100 S. Fir St., Ventura.

* WHEN: Lunch is from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Dinner is served from 5 to 9 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

* COST: Lunch or dinner for two, $8 to $15.

* ETC: No credit cards. Reservations accepted for dinner. No liquor. Call 643-9764.

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