RESTAURANT REVIEW : Smokey's Gets Its Act Together : Western fare and family dining are the order of the day at the Ventura eatery.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Walk by the covered wagon to enter the barn-red building. Note, as you approach your table, the bullwhip and branding iron on the wall on the left, the saloon-like bar and dance floor on the right. If it's a hopping night at Smokey's, your server might have a cowgirl's hat hanging off her shoulders, Annie Oakley-style.

Call it Concept 'Cue, a barbecue joint so thought-up, so installed, so polished in its grasp of Old West themes that the diner is grabbed by the lapels well before ordering. That's good, in a way, because your server will be over any minute, no matter what your order, to deposit a heavy iron bucket of Trail Blazer soup on your table. Steaming, it will sit upon a trivet (pardon the Anglican word) of thick-sliced tree trunk. Ladle away; it's something rustic to read the Old West Bill of Fare by.

Howdy, y'all. Chewin' dust yet?

Smokey's is new, been open only a few months. Already it's starting to pack in the weekend crowd and make a respectable showing midweek, and that is good. But the learning curve has been steep.

Off to a shaky start--tough, overcooked beef ribs, of all things, delivered by late servers--the place has in recent weeks pulled its act together and the grill has become reliable.

Even the Trail Blazer soup, a vegetable-tomato concoction that started out with an acrid, metallic flavor, has softened to a more aromatic brew. And there are bona fide hits on the menu: grilled meats that would do a Texan, not to mention Old-time Ventura Cowboy, proud.

The beef ribs ($12.95 for a full rack) now approach what they should be: large, tender, deeply scented from the wood fire. But baby back ribs ($13.95 the full rack) are better, so go with them for deeper flavor and more reliably tender meat. Each is coated lightly in Smokey's excellent barbecue sauce: not too sweet, just enough bite.

Best of all, however, are steaks. The top sirloin ($9.95 for the 8-ounce, which is plenty) is the example of deep, aged, rich flavor; it arrives cooked precisely as ordered and is free of cloying sauces, though it successfully bears the sweetness and scent of a light marinade or basting before grilling.

Happily, one of the most delicate of grill foods--quail--are quite successful. Order them barbecued or pan-fried ($14.95 for three birds), and they arrive seared outside, moist and sweet within. (One of the best values around, actually, is the sirloin/quail combination dinner, which means the loss of but one bird for the above two meals, for $13.95.)

Barbecued half chicken ($8.95) is competently handled. But fish dishes vary widely. Broiled salmon ($14.95) is fresh, sweet, free of any overcooking; while scampi ($14.95) are tough from overcooking and lack flavor. In any event, an entree such as scampi or chicken Oscar is a fringe dish in a barbecue house, particularly one so self-conscious as this, so you're on your own if you stray.

These dinners all include soup, which arrives by urn and can easily be passed up; a very run-of-the-mill, iceberg-heavy salad; baked potato, which tends to be good and firm; and truly superb, firm, nicely spiced baked beans.

Appetizers were somewhat disappointing. Breaded zucchini ($4.50) were lost in the bread. The vast, dramatic Caesar salad ($5.50) needed fewer leaves, less institutional dressing, and a new idea altogether.

But do try the Bloomin' Onion ($4.75), a massive, five-inch-wide onion that is split, breaded, deep-fried, and served up with a pungent dipping sauce. Two people (or more) can share it, and it makes for a bracing first course. Strangely, plain old onion rings ($3.50) fail, suffering the same fate as the zucchini: They wear sweaters of batter.

There are no desserts on the menu. But the same people who brought you in past the whip and made you half expect to see cattle roaming out back aren't going to let you go home without a glow. So cleverly included in the price of every meal is either a chocolate sundae or after-dinner liqueur.

Go ahead. At this point it feels "free." As they'd say in Texas, that's just good bidness, pardner.

Smokey's has a small, well-chosen wine list. But also available are Mondavi Woodbridge wines, perfectly suitable for the barbecue table, at $3.75 per glass.

And parents, if you haven't already figured it, take note: Smokey's, a Disney of a restaurant, is a fine place to bring the kids. Indeed, they're catered to. A menu quote will suffice: "YOUNG 'UNS: $2.50. For them special folks age 10 & under. Little varmints 3 and under eat free!" This includes burgers, hot dogs, ribs, or breaded chicken or fish strips.

No doubt, Smokey's, Ventura's newest high-concept, big-reach restaurant, is building a caravan.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Smokey's Dining Hall & Family Saloon, 211 E. Santa Clara St., Ventura, 643-3264. Open Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. for lunch and 4 to 10 p.m. for dinner; Sundays from noon to 10 p.m., dinner only. AE, V, MC, DC. Dinner for two, food only, from $25 to $50.

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