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July 24, 1987|ROBIN GREEN

Years ago, I lived for a while in a small village on a sand bar north of Acapulco, reachable only by boat and sand vehicles. On Saturdays, people from the city came by bus, then by boat up the lagoon to sit under ramadas by the sea, drinking beer and tequila, eating fresh fish and tortillas and beans. One Saturday, a brother pulled a gun and fired it at his sister. The bullet missed her--she could feel it whiz past her head, she later said--but the sound of the shot stopped the general gaiety cold.

There was silence for a moment. Then, when it became clear that no one's head had been blown off, things returned to normal--the party continued. If the bullet had hit, it would, of course, have been a very different afternoon.

Nothing like this is ever likely to happen at L.A. Ole, a new "fun" theme restaurant at Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue, but the place is designed to make customers feel that it almost could. It resembles nothing so much as a high school gymnasium done up to look like a down-and-dirty Mexican bar--whitewashed brick walls, chandelier made from beer bottles, giant mural of a Cuervo Tequila ad (a clever mingling of mood and business). Crayons are provided so that customers may draw all over the white tablecloths if they want to; paper place mats are provided in hopes that they'll do their artwork, thank you very much, thereon.

Never mind the shameless gimmickry of the place, the out-and-out Universal-Studios-Tour-as-restaurant approach--the thing works. Well-groomed young office workers, men and women who wouldn't dream of behaving that way in other bar/restaurants--say, the Ginger Man in Beverly Hills--here unabashedly maul each other right in the middle of the dining room, women on men's laps, sharing kisses worthy of a daytime soap. L.A., ole!

Never mind, too, that the food is by and large awful, and the margaritas are too sweet to drink. People are drinking, eating anyway. The food is inexpensive, the drinks have liquor in them, and this hall of a room not only looks like a high school gym but has those same echoing acoustics, so that even when the place is mostly empty the noise level makes it seem throbbing with life, action, fun.

And then, there are the "poppers," drinks made of tequila and ginger ale, served in glasses covered by folded white napkins, slammed down on the table by the waiter so hard it sounds like gunshots going off all over the dining room. "Drink!" the waiter screams in your ear as the tequila begins to foam and churn, "drink it down in one gulp, fast!" And, for some reason, as if you really were on a Universal Studios Tour and not in reality, as if you weren't really going to feel the effects, as if you shot back glasses of tequila all the time, you do drink it quickly--at least, I did. A papier-mache donkey head mounted high on the wall lets out a harsh mechanical bray.

Mercifully, the poppers blunt your disappointment with the food. The carne and carnitas are as if interpreted by Dinty Moore--done-in, mushy, bland stews. Soups are almost inedible--the tortilla soup, so salty it would have made that guy at the sand bar restaurant think seriously about taking aim at the chef; the cheese soup tastes like liquid Cheese Whiz.

Something called a "Cadillac Botana Platter" (the restaurant is part of a "today" kind of chain of which the Cadillac restaurant in San Francisco is a link) is less of a risk than most things on the menu. It's a generous platter at a fair price ($23.50 for two or three, $35.50 for four or five people), which includes half a mesquite-grilled chicken (rubbery), tomato aspic (well, OK, it tastes like cherry Jell-O spiked with tomato juice); beans stewed in beer (read: watery); little tostada- type appetizers (how can you mess up little toasted-type appetizers?) and fajitas. This last tastes most authentic: grilled sheets of meat as chewy and tough as much of the beef served in Mexico. There is also a dish full of melted cheese, which is OK until it cools and hardens into sodden undippability. The chips and hot sauce, however, and the nachos, are just fine.

But food is really beside the point here, the point seeming mainly one of getting one's ya-ya's out. Poppers are slammed on tables; the energetic young practice mating rituals, celebrate birthdays, firings, hirings. As for our table, we'd worked ourselves into a quarrel about an incident that happened--what?--about 12 years ago, a loud argument that went unnoticed in the general din but lasted all through the dinner and carried on into the street where we were still yelling at each other, laughing, howling at the Western/Wilshire moon.

L.A. Ole, 3760 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 383-6394. Open Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-midnight. Full bar. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$35.

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