THE BROWN PELICAN BRIEF

With July and its full 31 days charging ahead, it seems the fog bank has departed to expose crisp skies of blue that rest over the Channel like a cushy pillow. Few sites in our region evince this Pacific portrait better than the Brown Pelican at Hendry’s Beach (Arroyo Burro), with its semi-circle expanse of glass windows and ample patio space that face the water. The patio is well-equipped with heaters, in case the fog decides not to lift.

Built on public land in 1982 by Jamshid Bozorgmehr, the Brown Pelican has been caretaking the place with pride. Even during the tourist the summer rush, owners say 85% of business comes from locals, which means something in this town.

When Bozorgmehr took ill in 1983, his son, Iraj, pitched in when Iraj returned to UCSB and earned a double degree in English and philosophy. Iraj says he hooked on the business and loved the “local, coastal feel,” so in 1999 he became the sole owner. He brought the building up to date, reorganized the micro kitchen and with the help of Ann Sprecker, varied the menu according to the seasons. “During our high season, from June to September, we employ ninety-five full- and part-time people; otherwise, it’s about sixty-five,” Iraj says.

All chefs and owners I interview brag about the freshness of their food, an easy thing to do with Santa Barbara’s year-round growing season. In Iraj’s 150-square-foot kitchen, there’s no room for over-ordering, which means the restaurant has to be economic with its product. “Our quality of ingredients I’ll put up against anyone,” Iraj boasts. “We have limited refrigeration and freezer space, meaning nothing stays.”

Iraj’s no-nonsense attitude is refreshing. “I’m not trying to be what I’m not,” he claims. “This is an American bistro. It’s busy, happy and fast.”

Over the last three weeks, I dined three times. On my first visit, I ate Hendry’s fish tacos: red snapper in achiote sauce, grilled in cornhusks and served with tortillas, black beans, avocado and salsa ($19.95). The concept of using cornhusks to envelop the taco seems original; the dish yields a rich scent similar to those produced by outdoor venders in Mexico.

My friend had the grilled ahi tuna with black olive paste, ratatouille, roasted garlic mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables ($19.95). Seared lightly, the ahi was fresh and a nice complement to ratatouille.

When I returned for lunch with my son-in-law-to-be (for a tête-à-tête), I went for tacos once again. This time, they were filled with lobster, Napa cabbage and crème fraiche. I didn’t think I could eat all four, but I did ($17.95). My “guest” had the Pelican wrap stuffed with lobster, crab, cheese and lettuce ($14.95).

The last time I dined, it was hot when I left home, but when I arrived at the beach, it was cold and damp. Still, we sat on the patio next to a well-functioning heater and were comfortable throughout the meal. We began with a half-pound (24 pieces) of peel and eat shrimp in a fresh lemon broth with peppercorns. Again, they were fresh and, thankfully, not over-cooked. We also sampled the New England clam chowder with bacon. “This is the best chowder I’ve ever eaten,” one of my guests cried out. “I love the addition of corn and it isn’t too thick or heavy. It’s way better than Brophy’s.” I shared the grilled halibut ($22.95) with fresh vegetables, lemon butter (on the side) and mashed potatoes.

The Brown Pelican has a section on the menu called simply grilled. One can choose from rainbow trout, salmon, ahi, red snapper or halibut. It’s a great idea for those of us who like to taste the freshness of the catch and want to eliminate extra calories.

My third guest was in the steak mood and ordered grilled beef tenderloin with shitake mushrooms, parsley potato wedges, arugula pesto sauce and vegetables ($28.95). This was a serious piece of tender meat.

At the end of our meal, Iraj brought over a bottle of 20-year-old Tawny Port (Sandeman, Portugal) and four glasses. With a little coaxing, my friend brought out his backgammon board and the two began to play. Meanwhile, my friend and I shared fresh apple crisp with two scoops of McConnell’s vanilla ice cream and didn’t leave any for the backgammon champion.

If you haven’t been to the Brown Pelican, try it. Don’t be put off by a packed parking lot; most is for beachgoers.

The Brown Pelican (687-4550) is located at 2981 Cliff Drive. It is open seven days a week from 7 am to 10 pm for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s so close to the beach you’re practically sitting on the sand.