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RESTAURANT REVIEW : A Genuine, Down-to-Earth Diner : Santa Paula's Chili Hut has food, service and red Naugahyde booths that probably haven't changed much over the years.

November 03, 1994|DAVID GOLDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you've ever read the Ernest Hemingway short story called "The Killers," you'll recall that it's about a couple of hoods who walk into a lunchroom in a small Midwestern town, tie up the cook, counterman and the one customer, put them in the kitchen, then sit around drinking coffee and waiting for their victim, who is a regular at the joint.

Hemingway describes a real place, not like one of those recent vintage bring-back-the-'50s diners where the walls are sparkling white, the Naugahyde new, mini jukeboxes mark each table and everybody is smiling.

There aren't, at least in Southern California, many of the real thing left anymore.

One of them--the last of a dying breed--is on Santa Paula's shaded main street. But even the Chili Hut isn't open during those late-night hours, so it falls short of setting the scene established in so much good fiction over the years.

It's the sort of spot where most of the clientele seem to be regulars, where first names are tossed back and forth through the 50-seat room, and where the red Naugahyde on the booths is weathering and the counter is starting to show its age.

But let's not get into the sort of nostalgia for diners past where we suddenly remember the food being wonderful. Plentiful, yes. A good value, yes. Frequently pretty good, yes. But there were never words such as cuisine, gourmet, presentation and eclectic attached to the sort of food served at the Chili Hut, or at its predecessors.

You can almost forget, in spite of the restaurant's name, the word chili because only a couple of dishes even use the stuff, the chili size ($4.95) being one of them. The chili size is a pretty good one, even if the chili itself, loaded with beans, could use a little more zing. But the buns are fresh, the hamburger patty generous--and the service always affable (and none of this, "Hi, I'm your waitress, Suzie" stuff here).

The Chili Hut has been around since World War II days, and Jim Hanks has run it for the last 10 years. I doubt that much has changed on its menu over the years--except the prices. Excellent iced tea comes in large mugs, frequently refilled, and sandwiches such as the deluxe club ($5.45) seem so big they're hard to eat. One of the most popular items on the menu, the club is jammed with bacon, turkey, lettuce and tomato and a mayonnaise dressing.

Equally popular is the French beef dip ($5.45), its beef tender and not overcooked.

Almost by definition, a diner makes a big deal of breakfast, and the Chili Hut is no exception. Lots of good, firm, crisp, chunky country fried potatoes, homemade biscuits and dishes like chorizo and eggs ($4.50) and that good ol' American standby, grilled ham and eggs ($4.95).

As the years go by and the real diners fade into the past, it gets harder to remember if the food was actually any good or if we just loved the price, quantity and nostalgia. They almost all boasted of homemade pies and pastries, and the Chili Hut does too. To this reviewer, everything out of the oven is just a little sweet, like the boysenberry pie ($2.25) and the cinnamon roll ($1.45, big on size and even bigger on sugar).

The locals--who sometimes have to wait at the door with the rest of us and wait for a table or a seat at the counter--obviously love the place, and it really is a fun spot to eat hearty portions, get a good value and just plain enjoy a "real" diner.

Details

* WHAT: Chili Hut Cafe

* WHERE: 817 E. Main St., Santa Paula

* WHEN: Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday through Friday 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sunday 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.

* COST: Breakfast, lunch or dinner for two, $11-21

* CALL: 525-5670

* ETC.: Major credit cards accepted

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