If Rafael Lazaro had opened El Quijote de Rafael on the Westside of Los Angeles, it would probably be just another shrine to tapas and other trendy Spanish dishes.
A Westside version would have severe black-and-white decor, a crowded singles bar and a noise level fit for a Beastie Boys concert.
There would be valet parking with attendants who sneer at your Pinto and snigger at your tip.
Instead, Lazaro chose to open his restaurant in East Los Angeles. And so, in place of one more yuppie palace, we have a clean, well-lighted place that would have pleased Papa Hemingway.
Small, with eight tables, oil paintings on the wall and a stereo that plays classical and flamenco music, El Quijote de Rafael is a pleasant family-run cafe that, Lazaro says, draws customers from all over the Los Angeles area.
Lazaro draws on a background working in five-star European hotels and a long stint with the Matson Lines passenger ships for the restaurant's attentive service and tranquil atmosphere. His food, on the other hand, comes straight from his Barcelona upbringing.
A standard test of any Spanish restaurant is the paella --and Lazaro's passes with flying colors. There are two offerings at $10 and $12. The $12 portion, which must be ordered in advance, is money well-spent and easily worth the extra tariff--the rice is firm and well-seasoned and thoroughly mixed with satisfying pieces of shrimp, clams, squid, chicken, pork, snow-crab legs and fish.
The cazuela de mariscos , which must also be ordered in advance, is likewise worth phoning ahead for. The most expensive item on the menu at $12.95, this seafood casserole/stew mixes shrimp, prawns, clams, crab, whitefish and lobster in an intensely garlic-flavored broth. You'll find yourself sopping up the leftover broth with bread.
Fabada rafael is a steal at $5.95--and the best item on the menu. A staple of the Spanish diet, this hearty stew of white beans and smoked red sausage with a smattering of vegetables and potatoes is the equal of any to be found in Barcelona.
Another staple of Spanish cuisine is the tortilla espanola --an omelet with potatoes, onions and chorizo --a full meal at $4.95 with soup and salad included. Lazaro's version is somewhat smaller than that served in Spain's many small family restaurants, but nonetheless is a satisfying sample of this popular lunch.
Lazaro steps outside his culinary national boundary and tosses in a Portuguese surprise, bacalao a la vizcaine --salty, smoked cod fillets on a bed of rice ($9.95). Even though the fish is soaked in water to blanch out the salt residue and then cooked in a very light tomato sauce, the bacalao is probably too salty for most tastes; still, it's worth a try for the more adventurous.
Pollo el quijote ($5.95) should satisfy those craving fowl; this dish features the same light tomato sauce as the bacalao over chicken, potatoes, onions and white rice. Meat lovers can order lomo encebollado-- a thin, juicy grilled steak with onions and rice--for $7.50.
Other dinners include camarones al mojo de ajo , sizzling hot grilled garlic shrimp with rice ($9.95); merluza con salsa espanola , whiting filets in a light red sauce over rice ($6.95); and callos a la andaluza , a very filling Spanish version of menudo made from tripe with garbanzo beans and red sausage ($6.50). All dinners come with a loaf of bread and soup or salad; the first usually a light broth with a touch of garlic, the second a simple lettuce, tomato and olive mix with oil-and-vinegar dressing.
There are two desserts on the menu, both $1.95: flan rafael , a firm and creamy custard, and manzanas con vino de Jerez , baked apple with Sherry wine.
A small selection of rioja wine from Spain is offered at $8, $11 for the special reserve. Domestic beer and cider is also available.
The pleasures of dining at El Quijote de Rafael start and end with Rafael Lazaro. As your host, he greets you warmly; as your server, he unobtrusively attends to your every need; and, when dinner is over, he dons his host guise again, bringing a small glass of Jerez Sherry to your table and watching, with a smile, as you sip Sherry and linger in his clean, well-lighted cafe.
El Quijote de Rafael, 4641 Brooklyn Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 265-2837. Open from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday; Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. Same menu lunch and dinner, from $4.95 to $12.95. Very small parking lot as well as street parking.