Bamboo Steakhouse
4426 Central Ave.

For quite some time The Sportsman in Camarillo was a great traditional meat-and-potatoes old-school drinking/eating establishment. Good food, great drinks but not quite “dive-y” enough to be charming. Its parent restaurant (Sportsman Ventura) is still one of my favorite haunts in downtown Ventura. But now, under new management, with Mr. Chu at the helm, is now calling it Bamboo Steakhouse, and not only has smartened up its look, but also brought in a new Cantonese chef to add an Asian flavor to the menu.

First, the new look: The dining room is warm, clean and functional in tans and browns with a comfortable feeling of welcome; and the vast bar with its giant screen is an ideal place to watch a game or sporting event.  In fact, Mr. Chu is bringing in singers, bands, (the Tuesday West Coast swing dance night is very popular) and it is very much becoming noted as a destination location for event clientele.

Much of the menu resembles the former owner’s old-fashioned entrees (charbroiled steaks, chicken cordon bleu, perfectly cooked prime rib, tournedos of beef with béarnaise) and many familiar favorites, but the exciting addition to the dining room is the new chef, Ming, a noted interpreter of Cantonese and Sichuan Chinese cooking.  In fact, there are two separate menus (one traditional American and the other Asian), and Chef Ming is certainly living up to his reputation as a creative Chinese cook.

One of my favorite dishes is the kung pao, with its spiciness and the crunch of peanuts and water chestnuts. The other day at lunch I ordered Chef Ming’s kung pao shrimp, which was loaded with shrimp, peanuts and green onions. And what I first thought were square-chopped water chestnuts were in fact fresh jicama that had been added to the recipe for extra crunch and texture. Admirably, Chef Ming tries to buy as many of his vegetables locally as he can, but the imported Sichuan red chili peppers he uses  for the fiery bite are particularly full-bodied and flavorful.

In fact, the Chinese lunch menu is a terrific bargain: one entree plus soup, rice, egg roll and wonton for $7.50-$8.50 (depending on entree). The Chinese menu is very complete and all dishes are prepared to order. A vegetarian friend of mine loves the chiang pao eggplant, and also the vegetable egg foo young. Chef Ming uses all vegetable oils for his stir-fry, and as noted uses as many fresh and local ingredients as possible. Each dish certainly seems mindfully prepared and I’ve yet to be disappointed in any order.

That said, the egg drop soup at lunch was not quite hot enough; it seems the servers could be a bit more attentive to the dishes from the kitchen. While on the subject of soup the Bamboo Steakhouse has one of the best wor wonton soups I’ve encountered in Ventura County. The wontons tasted fresh and homemade, and the “wor” (which means “everything” in Chinese) depends on that day’s ingredients but is always a good sampling of pork, chicken or seafood and whichever vegetables of the day seemed suitable. This soup is very much a stand-alone in itself.

From the traditional American menu, two sandwiches at lunch particularly stand out. The Cuban is served on a chewy French roll and has layers of ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard, and is particularly tasty. But for old-school fattening decadence I sometimes throw guilt out the window and order the Monte Cristo: crunchy sourdough bread stuffed with turkey, ham, Canadian bacon and Swiss cheese, dipped in an egg wash, deep-fried and then dusted with powdered sugar.  Not an everyday vice, but well worth it for an occasional treat.

I’ve yet to make it to the Bamboo Steakhouse for breakfast, but a friend swears by the giant omelets and the Sunday brunch with roasted turkey, ham and vast amounts of creative culinary options (and of course champagne), all for $18.95, which seems a terrific value. This reformulated Camarillo standby is now even more appealing not just for drinks, nightlife and American food standards, but for terrific Chinese food as well.