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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND

Seven by the Sea

A Restaurant Row has emerged along Ventura's South Seward Avenue. The food is more fun than fashionable. But the coffee is fine, the pizza fresh and the burgers good to the last bite.

June 20, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's 6 a.m. and a hazy dawn has broken over Ventura Harbor. This is a peaceful time of day, when the two southernmost blocks of Ventura's Seaward Avenue are deserted.

Midday finds the area bustling. If you're spending the day at San Buenaventura Beach, you're bound to get hungry--and that is perhaps the best reason to visit this unusual street. The beach end of Seaward Avenue was dreary and run down a few years ago. Then local shop owners formed a merchants association, planted flowers and cleaned up the entire street.

Today it is blossoming, home to what may be the area's only true Restaurant Row. No, it's not cutting edge, but yes it is fun. Don't come looking for fashionable fare like blackened ahi or relentlessly creative fad foods topped with grapefruit vinaigrette. This is more the street for "bitchin' burgers," steak Tampiquena, pizza, sushi hand rolls and good coffee. Still, there are surprises.

Two, count 'em, crack espresso bars grace South Seaward, both specializing in a fine variety of eye-opening drinks and rich pastries. The smaller of the two is the Foglifter, a rabbit warren with tile counters, three tiny tables and four stools at a bar on the back patio.

Espresso at Foglifter, a strong, slightly bitter alkaloid brew, is provided by the well-traveled Italian coffee producer Illy. The good muffins and scones are from Lorenzoni's, the local bakery and cafe at nearby Ventura Village Harbor. (Try apple cinnamon or the dense, sweet lemon raspberry, and don't bother counting calories.) If you are really in the mood to indulge, there are snickerdoodle and chocolate-chip cookies, hidden from view in a ceramic jar to the left of the counter. For that intense midday thirst, try one of the fruit smoothies, thick drinks made from a banana puree and various fresh fruits.

Directly across the street is Full of Beans, more of a sit-down coffee house, where a small but friendly group of local denizens is gathered most any time of the day.

This place has four tables draped with gaudy tablecloths, two rocking chairs, board games like Monopoly and chess for passing time and a large assortment of bagels, pastries and drinks. Owner Lynn Merriam let it be known that her coffees are procured from Seattle and the teas from somewhere in Canada, but she wouldn't be more specific than that. (A bumper sticker pasted to the wall reads, "Friends Don't Let Friends Go to Starbucks.")

If you're having trouble lifting that morning fog, how about the Racehorse, five shots of espresso and some steamed milk, $3.50. What I'd come back for is one of Merriam's delicious blended mochas, which she proudly exclaims "are the best in the state." The one I sampled, Irish Cream blended mocha, is a perfect suspension of ice, syrups, coffee and extra rich milk.

* Foglifter, 1121 S. Seaward Ave.; (805) 648-7339. Open 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.

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* Full of Beans, 1124-A S. Seaward Ave.; (805) 648-1194. Open 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Duke's is probably the best-known place on the street. I mentioned it to a couple of Ventura natives to test for name recognition, and both blurted out "bitchin' burgers" without blinking an eye.

This quintessential beach-shack, sawdust-on-the-floor burger joint belongs to surfing enthusiast Mike Blue, who named his business for the legendary Hawaiian swimming champion Duke Kahanamoku. A picture of Kahanamoku is framed and mounted on the wall, but what you'll really want to see is Blue's veritable surfing museum, what he claims is the largest collection of longboards on this stretch of the coast. (The boards--emblazoned with names like Dewey Weber, Jacobs, Gordon and Smith, Surfboards Hawaii and more--hang from the ceiling, in both the front room and two garden patios.)

Blue is also proud of his food, fresh hamburger meat (never frozen), Japanese-style sticky rice, Cabo-style fish tacos and a sumptuous mahi-mahi sandwich. I tried a giant teriyaki burger ($3.75) and relished every bite, as well as a taco made with the oily, spicy Portuguese sausage called linguica, which came dressed up with shredded cabbage, salsa and scallions.

The courageous can attempt the Ball of Wax, a two-third-pound hamburger patty on a sesame bun with avocado, extra cheese and a half-dozen bacon strips. Or the timid can buy a Duke's T-shirt and just tell their friends they ate one.

* Duke's, 1124 S. Seaward Ave., (805) 653-0707. Open 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

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One might be tempted to dismiss the venerable China Sea as passe, the sort of Chinese restaurant that caters to older-generation eaters unfamiliar with the more authentic Chinese dishes currently in vogue.

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