PICTURED: Ensalada Helene at Ojai Beverage Company. Photo by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
nshaffer@timespublications.com

 Ojai Beverage Company
655 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai
805-646-1700
ojaibevco.com
$5-20

Ojai, a foodie destination for decades, has been experiencing a mini-renaissance of late, with a slew of new restaurants throwing open their doors and delighting diners and critics alike. It is notable, therefore, that Ojai Beverage Company has continued to hold its own.

When it first came on the scene in 2007, it was a bit ahead of the curve, with a great liquor store (top-shelf and hard-to-find items with knowledgeable staff), lots of craft brews on tap and a “casual gourmet” menu that predated most of Ventura County’s other gastropubs. OBC today is no longer the trendy spot, but it really doesn’t need to be — because the upscale bar food that it helped popularize in the area . . . and that it continues to serve . . . is every bit as good as it was when pub grub was first in vogue.

When my husband and I dined at OBC recently, it was the first time is probably five years, and I was curious to see how it had held up. Coming in from the July heat, the air-conditioned dining room was very inviting . . . and, naturally, fully occupied. We had no trouble finding seats on the spacious, and much warmer, side room. Our server, Jonathan, came to our rescue immediately, pulling down the blinds and seating us at a table right beneath the fan — and I swear the temperature dropped about 10 degrees right then and there.

Pretzels at OBC. Photo by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Jonathan was equally on the spot with the taps list. He cheerfully guided us through the many brews and their various qualities, and let us taste about four different options before we decided on our pints (a smooth and rich American brown ale and a wonderfully crisp cider). Pretty soon, our ice-cold beverages were cooling us from the inside out, and the summer swelter was beginning to abate.

The menu was much as I remembered: burgers and sandwiches, some fancy salads, the famous fish tacos (a personal favorite) and lots of appetizers. We decided on pretzel sticks to start, with the Ensalada Helene and the B-Real Chicken Sandwich for our main dishes.

The pretzels came out shortly after our beers and the pairing couldn’t have been more perfect. Three large, soft, fresh pretzels, each hitting that sweet spot between tender and chewy, were served with a homemade mustard and chipotle aioli — both divine. Our meal was off to a great start!

In the blink of an eye, the rest of our food arrived, and both the salad and sandwich were as good as those fabulous pretzels.

Fries at OBC. Photo by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

The Ensalada Helene included peppery arugula topped with roasted beets, several slices of thinly shaved tri tip (which practically melted in the mouth), dollops of goat cheese and caramelized onions. A wonderful dressing made with balsamic vinegar and walnut oil brought it all together beautifully. If you’re looking for something on the lighter side that will still stick to your ribs, this salad with its mix of textures and flavor profiles makes a fine choice.

The chicken sandwich was heartier, but delicious in its own way. It featured a tender and juicy chicken breast, coated with blackened seasoning and grilled. Additional heat came from chipotle aioli, while Swiss cheese and bacon introduced creamy, smoky and crispy elements. A little onion, lettuce and tomato, all inside a ciabatta roll…fantastic and filling. A heap of piping-hot and super-crispy “blackened” French fries (unseasoned and truffle versions are also available) kept the culinary party going. 

All told, a simple but simply delicious meal from an old favorite that still knows how to serve up flavorful pub grub. Trends come and go, dining concepts shift, and creative chefs will always try to find something new to distinguish themselves. But there will always be a place for eateries that transcend the fads by sticking to what they do best: great food and stellar service. Both continue to make Ojai Beverage Company a reliable standout.