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Seven by the Sea

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.

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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.

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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.

This is one Chinese restaurant with a bar scene, a place to imbibe with well-bronzed locals wearing Hawaiian shirts and Ray-Bans. Happy hour runs all afternoon for some folks in here. Drinks range from Amstel Light to any number of silly rum-and-fruit drinks, the ones with paper umbrellas and maraschino cherries. The menu lists Suffering Bastard, Singapore Sling, Scorpion and dozens of others. Don’t worry. They all taste like a mai tai.

Food in the dining room, a rather somber hall distinguished mainly by the presence of three full-sized lacquer screens, is hearty and unpretentious. China Sea’s menu is largely composed of shrimp, scallops, chicken, beef and pork done in dozens of ways. What I tasted was clean tasting and generally well put together.

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Mongolian beef is lean beef tossed in a wok with scallions in a light garlic sauce, while plain sauteed shrimp, finished in rice wine, are a delight. Ask the waiter nicely and he might let you order chow fun, mouth-watering rice noodles not on the menu. I asked the waiter for a Chinese vegetable dish, and he responded by bringing me a plate of crisply turned fried Chinese broccoli, in a complex and flavorful oyster sauce.

* China Sea, 1105 S. Seaward Ave., (805) 643-9477. Open 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 12:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

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Anywhere in the Southland, scratch a beach and you’ll find a sushi bar. JuroCho belongs to Okinawa native George Lee, who brings a rather eccentric style to his all-wooden, no-chair establishment.

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JuroCho is hardly the place for a claustrophobic. This could be the county’s tiniest restaurant, a place you have to squeeze into. (Though it is still bigger than hundreds of similar establishments in Tokyo and Osaka.) During a meal here, you’ll sit at a long bench directly adjacent to the sushi bar. If you’re a regular, you’ll probably have your name inscribed on your very own jubako, a personalized Japanese wooden box for drinking sake.

If you don’t fancy sushi, vinegared rice with assorted fish and vegetable toppings, there is also the chance to eat unusual hand rolls and robata-yaki, griddled foods traditionally handed to customers by means of a large wooden paddle.

There’s no paddle here, just a metal grill with sides covered in protective aluminum foil. Anything from the grill--fish, vegetables or chicken--is fine. Try the salmon with tomato-sesame sauce, soy-drenched chicken teriyaki, steamed mussels or the imaginative Hanalei roll, pieces of yellowtail, red onion, salmon and avocado wrapped in seaweed and deep fried.

* JuroCho, 1054 S. Seaward Ave., (805) 652-0382. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, dinner 5:30-9:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.

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Then there is Joannafina’s, named for owners Joanna and Delfina Lopez-Rojas. The menu says all food is made fresh daily, but our waitress confided that the vaunted tamales, huge, plump things served steaming in the husks, are made twice weekly.

No matter. This is a most charming little place that serves delicious, down-home Mexican dishes, a cafe that wouldn’t look out of place in the interior of Mexico. Salsa music plays constantly over speakers. Tables are covered in pleasantly colored oil cloths. Joannafina’s is a narrow restaurant, densely packed with decorations like sombreros, serapes, guitars and pottery. Walls are painted in pink and green pastel. The floor is terra-cotta tile.

The tamales ($2.85) are a must--beef with chili colorado, pork with chile verde and a tempting vegetarian tamale--fall-apart masa cornmeal with sophisticated fillings. One reliable entree is steak Tampiquena, a specialty of the city of Tampico. It’s a huge platter of marinated, grilled flank steak cut to a razor thinness, a cheese enchilada with mole sauce, rice, beans and guacamole. Sopa Aida ($3) is a spicy tortilla soup. The best dessert is flan, baked custard in hot caramel sauce.

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If the decor appeals to you, you can go next door to Un Poquito de Mexico, a gift shop featuring clothes, rugs, beach blankets, pottery and jewelry, all imported from sunny Mexico.

* Joannafina’s, 1127 S. Seaward Ave., (805) 652-0360. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Oh yes, I almost forgot pizza, the beach-goer’s favorite food. Well, take heart, because Beachside Pizzeria, the last restaurant on the street before you land on the sand, acquits itself quite well, thank you.

This is a modest but pleasant restaurant with a windy outdoor patio facing the street and interior walls colored a bright baby blue. Behind the counter, there is an enormous Hobart dough mixer, which attests to the fact that all the pizza dough is made fresh, nothing frozen, pre-made or premixed here. A refrigerator case above the counter houses exotic brews: Portland’s WheatBerry, Sam Adams Pale Ale from New England, imports like Oktoberfest from Munich, Germany and Newcastle Brown Ale from England.

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The medium-thick pizzas are creative, but not what you’d call overboard. Johnny’s pizza is a sauceless pie with fresh tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, two cheeses and a sprinkling of chopped fresh basil. Pesto is made with the pungent green sauce, three different cheeses and fresh garlic. The puffy calzones are Christmas-stocking-sized pouches filled with things like ricotta cheese, prosciutto and other goodies. There are pastas and submarine sandwiches, too, for those very few who disassociate pizza with a day at the beach.

* Beachside Pizzeria, 1141 S. Seaward Ave., (805) 648-7858. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.


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