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Caribbean Cruise 

Herve Villechaize isn't on our Fantasy Island, either . . .

Wednesday, Jan 20 1999
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Cha Cha Chicken

Cha Cha Chicken is Caribbean poultry with attitude: a luscious, crisp-skinned bird gritty with spices and painted with dense, black sauce, slightly sweet and intricately spiced -- not precisely a beginner's bird. The pepper heat starts burning about midway across your palate and works its way to the back of your throat, where it smolders for about the length of time it takes to gulp down a tall glass of lemonade and a spoonful or two of "dirty rice." Mulato Cubano, Cha Cha's all-fowl version of the pig-intensive Cuban sandwich called media noche, is everything you could want in a pressed sandwich: violently spicy chicken, melted cheese, a pickle ä chip or two, and a French roll that has been folded, spindled and mutilated in the jaws of a sandwich press until the soft insides have the sort of steady, core heat that could probably stoke a geothermal power plant. 1906 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica; (310) 581-1684. Open daily for lunch and dinner, and for brunch Sat.­Sun. Dinner for two, food only, $7­$14. BYOB. Takeout. Cash only.

Coley's Kitchen Jamaican Restaurant

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This is pretty much as authentic a West Indian place as you could ever hope to find on the Westside. The meaty braised oxtails are terrific, subtly spiced, meltingly tender. And you do get a lot of food: a basket of sweet cornmeal "festival bread"; a couple of fried plantains; a careful mound of rice cooked with beans; a pile of steamed vegetables or a bowl of soup. The patties are good, flaky, and filled with well-spiced mixtures of greens, ground beef or ground chicken, though they are better when they come fresh from the oven. And there's ginger beer hot enough to pack a wasabi-style burn. 4335 Crenshaw Blvd.; (323) 290-4010. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $15­$30; dinner for two, food only, $20­$40. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. AE, DC, Disc., MC, V.

El Emperador Maya

Yucatecan food can be among the most delicious food on Earth, lively with citrus, fragrant with exotic spice, stinging with ample lashings of the native habañero chile. And while El Emperador Maya may be a tidy place, all prim curtains, cute figurines and customers in ties, the flavors of its cooking are strong and clean, the sort of thing one might expect from the chef at a first-class Yucatecan resort hotel. The sautéed calamari appetizer, a frequent special, involves a big steak of the stuff, heavily garlicked and tender as tofu. Poc chuc, the chile-rubbed pork steak that is more or less the Yucatecan signature dish, here resembles a good version of the more common Mexican adobado, edged with a sweet rim of char. Chiles rellenos are made with firm, tasty pasilla chiles, stuffed with a tasty paste of beef, the kind of chiles rellenos you could imagine paying $22 for in a fancy Southwestern restaurant. 1823 S. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 288-7265. Open Tues.­Sun. for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $20­$28. Beer and wine. Takeout. Free delivery within two miles. AE, Disc., MC, V.

Las Palmas

Behold fufu de platanos, a compact beige mound rising from its plate like a miniature Great Western Forum constructed of fried pigskin, garlic and green plantains, oozing oil and melted lard, fragrant enough to make the guy across the room look up from his Investors Daily when the waitress brings it to your table. In addition to the fufu of plantains, Las Palmas has the best fried green plantains I've had since the lamented Cuban-Chinese restaurant Chaos closed a decade ago, crunchy on the outside but quickly giving way, like a perfect bagel, to a resilient softness inside, tasting of starch and salt and clean oil, without a trace of the usual fishiness . . . These are postgraduate French fries. 11671 Victory Blvd., N. Hollywood; (818) 985-5955. Open Tues.­Sun. for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $15­$25; $3.50 lunch specials on weekdays. Beer and wine. Takeout and catering. Lot parking. AE, MC, V.

Portobanco

Portobanco makes a proper version of Nicaragua's national salad, vigoron -- logs of steamed yuca arranged in a kind of pinwheel, layered with tart, spicy cabbage slaw called curtido, then strewn with slabs of crunchy fried pigskin. Vigoron has the play of flavors you might expect from a legendary folk food, the almost Play-Doh-like consistency of the starchy tuber playing off against the cool crackle of the cabbage. Likewise, salpicon -- the salad of chopped beef, onions and diced radish you will find on pretty much every menu between Guadalajara and Tierra del Fuego -- can be swell here, coarsely chopped, gently fragrant, blood-warm and a couple degrees more well-done than usual, so that the dish may remind you of the browned bits left in the bottom of the pan after you cook a roast. 5779 W. Venice Blvd.; (323) 937-5144. Open Tues.­Sun., 11 a.m.­9 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $12­$16. No alcohol. Street parking. MC, V.

Rincón Hondureño

Coconut-enriched seafood chowders are a staple of the warm-water Americas, stretching from Florida down to the fiery mocquecas of northern Brazil. At Rincón Hondureño, sopa de caracol is a lovely, ivory-hued liquid tinged with pink, a faint whiff of tropical seas in its steam, served in a bowl the size of a skiff. If you dig down into the soup you will come across huge, fleshy logs of yuca root and plantain, whose subtle, earthy sweetnesses and claylike textures are enhanced by the sluice of coconut milk in the broth, the perfumy hint of lime. The Honduran caracol is the pink-shelled conch of the Caribbean, sliced thin and pounded thinner, and you'll find a big, chewy fistful of sliced caracol in your soup bowl too, perhaps more as a textural element than for the shellfish's delicate aroma, scarcely as assertive as the bits of peppers and onions and tomatoes that form the flavor base of the soup. 1654 W. Adams Blvd.; (323) 734-9530. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $12­$18. Open Mon.­Fri., 7:30 a.m.­9 p.m.; Sat.­Sun., 8 a.m.­10 p.m. Beer and wine. Street parking only. Takeout. Cash only.

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