Southern Comfort at Saloon
From barbecued tri-tip to fried pickles and fried okra
By JR Grant 07/11/2013
456 E. Main St.
One of the hippest new hangouts in Ventura County is The Tavern. The success of that establishment helped prompt its owners to create a restaurant featuring their favorite food style: barbecue. Their new restaurant on Main Street in Ventura is called The Saloon, and judging by the often-crowded space in its first two months of operation, many Ventura County diners are sampling the restaurant’s options.
In fact, when they first opened, I tried to go a couple of times but found the wait too long and the bustling scene overpowering. I’ve now been back several times, have sampled quite a bit of the food, and am still formulating my opinion. If you are thirsty, the bar options are terrific (12 draft beer selections, including several local brands), and the daily drink creations are unique, powerful and memorable. On my last visit, the daily special was the “Lafayette”: Wild Turkey rye, Chartreuse, mescal, agave and orange bitters. At happy hour, the daily drink is only $5, so it is good value as well.
And speaking of happy hour, the small plate food selections are interesting, and I wish they were on the menu at other times as well. For example, the fried pickles (cross cut dill pickle chips in a tempura like puffy batter) are surprisingly crunchy, chewy and full of flavor. Also available are Mini Saloon hot dogs, a pan-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a Frito pie with brisket chili, and a selection of three barbecue sliders with chicken, pork, tri-tip or brisket (served with a dollop of cole slaw on top of the meat). One of the better options, in my opinion, is a cornmeal-coated fried catfish sandwich (served on a nondescript bun with mayo and a lemon slice.) At either $5 or $6 a plate, the happy hour small plates are reasonably priced great accompaniments to the vast drink selections.
Served with all meals is skillet-cooked corn bread with whipped butter (plain, honey-sweetened or maple syrup/bacon flavored). The first time I ate at the Saloon, I noticed in the “starters & salads” section of the menu cornmeal fried okra. When I was a child my mother frequently made this dish, and I must say it lived up to my fond childhood memories. Okra may be an acquired taste, but if you are from the south, fried okra is a seasonal comfort food special, and Saloon’s version melts in your mouth with just the right amount of corn meal breading and okra earthiness.
Foodwise/tastewise, Saloon was satisfactory in most dishes. The barbecue plates (chopped brisket, pulled pork, pork ribs, half chicken, or tri tip) are well presented and flavorful. Alas, however, nothing “wowed” me. The pulled pork is decent, but dependent on whichever sauce you choose for distinct flavor. The ribs were juicy and full (albeit not quite as “fall off the bone” as I prefer, and the chicken was, well, chicken. I guess at $14 -$16 a plate I wanted some unique “only at Saloon” creation. There are three barbecue sauces from which to choose: regular, smoky sweet and fiery hot. I sampled each, chose the hot, and it packed a flavor punch, but again, no “wow” factor.
The sides are fairly typical for a barbecue restaurant: garlic mashed potatoes, cole slaw, country cheese grits (mellow and savory but a little too creamy for my taste), french fries, macaroni and cheese, etc. One night, we ordered the collard greens with apple-smoked bacon and peppered vinegar. They were particularly al dente. One dining companion loved them, another hated them. I just found them crunchy and slightly bitter but I don’t think I will order them again.
I am especially fond of the house-made peach sweet tea, also the house-made lemonades (mint, strawberry, raspberry, ginger). All are piquant and refreshing on a hot summer day. Desserts seem to change as the menu develops, so nothing to report as yet. In fact, given the newness of the restaurant, many start-up difficulties can be forgiven. Three different times, however, I’ve entered the restaurant and haven’t been greeted or noticed; and when I’ve asked about ingredients and preparation techniques, several servers have been clueless and had to fetch a manager or more savvy employee for an answer. I suppose when I am paying reasonable money for simply adequate but not great food, I want a little more professionalism in the serving staff. That said, I will go back for the great happy hour and enjoy the catfish sandwich and the fried pickles.