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EATS: Ventura County | TIDBITS

Too Hot for Comfort

Local cooks take honors for tongue-numbing appeal of their salsa and barbecue creations.

May 29, 1997|LEO SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The folks who manufacture the hottest of the JC's Midnite Salsa line, a series of condiments created by James Teschner of Ventura, may soon put in for combat pay.

"They don't like making the 'Hotter 'N Hell' and 'Blackout' [varieties]," said Teschner. "The salsas are so damn hot they have to wear gas masks and different protective wear so they don't burn themselves. It really gets in the air--it gets to your lungs and makes you choke and cough."

Massive quantities of hot chile pepper may be painful to cook with, but they have a definite appeal to consumers. And they seem to please judges as well.

Teschner's Hotter 'N Hell salsa recently earned him second-place honors in the hot salsa category in Chile Pepper magazine's national Fiery Food Challenge. Fellow Ventura County resident Dennis Ofsthun and his Rib Tickler's BBQ sauce finished second in the extra, extra, extra hot sauce division.

"They judge on a few different things, but the things that stood out the most were the flavor and consistency in the thickness," said Teschner, a Naval engineer who last year finished first and second in the hot salsa category. "It has a good bite to it. You can really get a good taste from the habanero (chile pepper)."

Ofsthun also credited the nasty habanero for his prize.

"I entered my hottest sauce, my Thermo sauce," Ofsthun said. "I expected it to be way too hot. I put in a combination of crushed red peppers, Tabasco and habanero peppers."

Ofsthun, who prepares the barbecue dishes at the new Adobe Cantina in Agoura Hills, said the secret to his sauce is a balance of heat and taste.

"With a lot of salsas, all you taste is the hot," he said. "But even though mine is really hot, it still has the flavor."

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More honors: As has been the case in years past, Ventura County chefs made quite a mark at the annual Santa Barbara Bouillabaisse Festival held recently at Brander Vineyard in Los Olivos.

Sandy Smith, co-owner of Rosarito Beach Cafe, the Busy Bee Cafe and the Santa Clara House in Ventura, won the "open" category with his lobster soup, and Neal Rosenthal, executive chef at Petrucci's Bistro in Oxnard, came in third in the hotly contested, 17-entry cioppino division.

"It's a recipe that my sous chef and I have been working on for awhile," Rosenthal said. "The key thing here is we keep it simple. If I actually told you the recipe, you would laugh because of how few ingredients are in it. And fresh fish really helps."

Speaking of Rosenthal, his wife Sharon, pastry chef at Santa Barbara's El Encanto Hotel, is scheduled to participate in the "Women of Taste" fund-raising dinner Sunday at the Girls Inc. office in Carpinteria.

Other chefs on the all-woman list include Brigette Guehr of Brigette's, Lydia Gaitan of the Meritage restaurant and Robin Tico Sumner of the Stonehouse Restaurant at San Ysidro Ranch.

Cost is $35 advance, $40 at the door, with proceeds benefiting Girls Inc., which offers programs for girls facing social, economic and other barriers. The dinner will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. at 5315 Foothill Road. For reservations, call 684-6364.

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And speaking of Smith, his business partnership with longtime Ventura restaurateur Ed Warren is alive and well, though they recently had planned to end the merger of their operations.

In 1995 the two businessmen brought together Warren's Busy Bee Cafe and Smokey's Saloon (which later was renamed Joe Daddy's and then Santa Clara House) and Smith's Rosarito Beach Cafe. Earlier this year, Smith opted to break off the joint venture and focus his concentration more on his establishment.

But now he'll have the best of both worlds, he said, thanks in large part to Gabriel Esquibias, former general manager of the Biltmore Hotel in Montecito.

Esquibias had been a minor stockholder in the Smith-Warren partnership, but under the new arrangement will be taking on a bigger role--that of operating manager--and a larger stake in the company.

"His involvement was key for me deciding not to de-merge," Smith said. "He and I think an awful lot alike: We agree on the direction of the company and the direction of the restaurants."

Which means Smith will continue to focus his efforts on Rosarito Beach, while providing his culinary knowledge to the other two restaurants.

"Gabriel feels as well that Rosarito Beach is the flagship of the company," Smith said, "and if we are ever going to expand, Rosarito will be the vehicle for expansion to another location."

Plans call for an upgrade of Rosarito's patio area, monthly wine-tasting dinners and weekly pre-fixe meals. The Busy Bee, meanwhile, will be cosmetically refurbished, with a new juke box and new decor--particularly a return of the old movie posters for which it had been known.

Santa Clara House, for now, will be left alone to see how it performs.

"I've sort of just taken on the operating responsibilities to help Ed and Sandy bring this merger together and go forward in a profitable manner," Esquibias said. "These are three unique institutions."

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