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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Chili's Finds Its Niche With Value Seekers : The restaurant makes fine burgers, but it also offers satisfying entrees at budget prices.

March 30, 1995|LEONARD REED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The war is on at The Rose Shopping Center, just off the Ventura Freeway in Oxnard. Mario's Bistro and The Garden Patch restaurant got a head start before two dominators opened doors just across the parking lot entrance from each other: TGI Friday's and Chili's. The Rose is a hot location, as its ring of stores churns out the weary and the hungry all day and well into the night.

There's no telling who's winning the battle here, but Chili's clearly is winning the war.

In recent visits, it has shown itself to consistently live up to its promises, and it unfailingly receives its guests with cheer and--imagine this--utter competence.

OK, Chili's is not a fine restaurant. Let's call it what it is: a casual, sometimes noisy house that specializes in family dining from a limited menu of burgers, Southwest-inflected grill items, a few oddball regional choices, and fun drinks. With only a few exceptions, however, it does all of this rather well, and in a smart wood-and-brick environment. Moreover, it's inexpensive.

It is clear that Chili's understands its market niche, perhaps better than some of its competitors: hungry families who want value with a spin on it but no fuss. If formula chain dining is your bane, as it is mine, Chili's is the sort of place that can bring redemption.

Start with a giant deep-fried onion called Awesome Blossom ($4.79). More than enough for two, it has been deftly sliced to open like a flower. Its "petals" remain firm and fresh; encrusted in light, spicy batter; and heated further by a cayenne-spiked dipping sauce. Chicken nachos ($5.29) are huge, laden with breast meat, cheese, beans, jalapeno peppers, pico de gallo and sour cream--nothing new but freshly assembled and attractively turned out.

Avoid the buffalo wings ($4.29), which are overcooked and under-spiced. But Southwestern vegetable soup (99 cents with any entree), if a tad salty, is bracing and flavorsome.

*

The entree acid test in a place such as this is the plain burger, here called the Oldtimer ($4.79). Happily, it is fresh, cooked perfectly medium rare to order and served with first-rate, French fries full of potato flavor.

The health-conscious relative of this dish always is the turkey burger, something I've yet to encounter not dried to grayness and without flavor. But the Chili's turkey burger ($4.99), featuring one-third pound of fresh ground meat, is grilled just enough for thorough cooking but not so much as to shed natural juices. It is topped with a honey/barbecue sauce and served with the same outstanding fries.

As entrees become more elaborate, the standard falls off somewhat, though satisfaction often is achieved. Fajitas with chicken ($8.49) are garden variety, with much sizzle for show, but somewhat wan and under-seasoned. Grilled chicken ($6.49), in which a grilled marinated breast tops cinnamon/apple rice, is accompanied by fresh steamed vegetables. The meat is quite good, the vegetables firm and vivid in color--but the rice is overcooked and over-sweetened.

Barbecued baby back ribs ($9.99), served with cinnamon apple slices, are tender and quite satisfying, if not the real article from a slow-cooking pit. And the cheese-steak sandwich ($5.99), which spice-happy South Philadelphians would dismiss as gutless, nonetheless satisfies with first-quality, thin-sliced steak and grilled onions and peppers. Just ask for the hot sauce.

Two highly recommended salads are the chicken Caesar ($5.99), in which the Caesar is bracing and lemony; and grilled tuna ($5.79), in which the fish is actually grilled at the time the salad is prepared and thus fresh, deeply flavored and fortifying.

Whatever dinner choice you make, do order up a side of homemade mashed potatoes. They're dense in flavor and without apology in the pepper and spice department.

*

I'm no dessert guy but did watch guests experience apparent levitation over something called Piled High Yogurt Pie ($2.99). Here, crushed Oreo cookies are blended with frozen yogurt and made to form a towering mound within a moat of hot fudge sauce. I did order the cowardly carrot cake ($2.99) and found it to be quite good, if lost beneath a heavy pavement of too-sweet white icing.

The place, obviously, is not without fault. But if you're looking for the quick, inexpensive, good meal served up by a competent staff, Chili's is always there. That, evidently, is exactly how they figured it--and precisely the source of my gratitude.

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DETAILS

* WHAT: Chili's Grill & Bar.

* WHEN: Lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.--11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 10 p.m. on Sundays.

* WHERE: 2221 N. Rose Ave., Oxnard.

* HOW MUCH: Dinner for two, food only, from $12 to $35.

* CALL: 278-0027.

* FYI: Major credit cards; no reservations.

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