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Quick Meals : Now that fast food has gone ethnic, you can eat your way across continents without leaving the neighborhood.

August 15, 1987|MAX JACOBSON | Jacobson is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer who frequently writes on restaurants and food for The Times' Calendar section.

Serious eaters once sniffed at the prospect of eating fast food. It was high in calories, they said, and low in nutrients. The snobby ones insisted it had no taste at all.

Today, however, that's all been changed. Even the most hard-core foodies are elbowing their way up to the counter for a closer look--now that fast food's gone ethnic.

You know something is up when even conservative McDonald's has added an Oriental chicken salad. And in Los Angeles, arguably the fast-food capital of the world, you can eat your way across continents without having to leave the neighborhood.

What to eat is a much bigger issue than where to eat, because there's just so much to choose from. Furthermore, choosing can be a major trauma when you're short on time, or if the kids are decorating the floor with Cheerios while you're trying to make up your mind. Maybe the following fast tour through some of L.A.'s ethnic fast-food eateries will help.

Naturally, it's incomplete--a comprehensive listing would fill volumes--and subjective. It's designed to whet your appetite for what's out there, and hopefully, some of the area's best have been included.

To qualify as fast food, a restaurant needs a counter, a cafeteria line, a take-out window, or a drive-through, and food must be ready in five minutes or less. Lastly, it must be inexpensive. If you're going to have to make a trip to the bank just to pay for it, you might as well relax in an opulent dining room.

CHINESE

When no one can decide what they want, Chinese food is always a crowd pleaser. The sheer variety and colorful presentation make it a solid choice.

Mandarin Deli, 727 N. Broadway, 109, Los Angeles (213) 623-6054, 9351 Reseda Blvd., Northridge (818) 993-0122.

Peer in the window at the Chinatown location and watch the dumpling chef ply his trade, stuffing and rolling those beautiful packets of dough. If you don't get hungry, see a doctor. Mandarin Deli is a near-unanimous choice for boiled, fried, or steamed Chinese dumplings, and they're ready in seconds. Everyone from food critics to 5-year-olds love the boiled meat dumplings (10 for $2.75), because they are soft, moist, tender and yielding, as delicate as the ripest fig in season. Pan-fried dumplings (8 for $2.95) have a crispy skin and a juicy filling. There isn't a more satisfying snack in Los Angeles.

Fong's Burger, 326 N. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park (818) 280-0015.

This improbably named food stand specializes in carry-out dim sum, those delectable Chinese tea pastries, and they're big, overstuffed, and absurdly inexpensive. Giant baked pork buns (45c) are a favorite with Westerners, according to manager Loy Ma, and the buns are a wonder--sticky and soft, swollen with minced, barbecued pork. Also outstanding are steamed chicken buns (40 cents), a ball of minced chicken wrapped in fluffy, steamed dough, and har gow, shrimp dumplings with a diaphanous noodle wrapper. Fong's also sells quick fried rice noodles with a variety of toppings, sit-down-food you can munch on at the tables on the side of the building.

Hoy's Wok, 7105 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles (213) 850-6637.

Los Angeles is bursting at the seams with Chinese take-out restaurants, but this one is a cut above. It's located on a busy intersection, and maintains a bright, clean appearance, with floors of spotless white tile, and a sprinkling of white clothed tables. The food is Mandarin style, and fiery hot. Szechuan chicken salad ($3.25) is gigantic, loaded with chicken and crushed peanut, in an orange flavored dressing. Deep-fried pot stickers are a crunchy treat. Hoy's Lo Mein is a dish of thick noodles, swimming in a thick meat sauce. Hot-spiced dishes, starred on the menu, like hot shredded pork, would make Rambo beg for ice water. The owners are ethnic Chinese from Korea. That explains that.

FRENCH

Perfect for a beautiful day, when a nice cool breeze is blowing, and a light entree like quiche or salade Nicoise would make life as gay as Paris in the spring.

Pioneer Boulangerie, 2012 Main St., Santa Monica (213) 399-7771.

A huge complex with two outdoor patios for relaxed al fresco nibbling, just blocks from the ocean, and mobbed on weekends. The famous on-site bakery produces wonderful sourdough, baguettes, and a variety of croissants, and you can pick them up in a cafeteria line filled with Gallic goodies like imported brie, country pate, and freshly made soups. There are also innumerable pastries, small, double-crusted pies, and elaborate, multilayered cakes. The quality is not earth-shattering, but the atmosphere is pleasant, the setting is quintessential, and the parking is free, a rare Westside commodity.

Julienne, 2649 Mission St., San Marino (818) 441-2299.

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