Mixing cultures may be a recent development in Los Angeles restaurants, but south of the Panama Canal, it's certainly not new. For several hundred years, waves of immigrants have been introducing German cheese to Venezuela or Italian pasta to Argentina. Each country's cuisine is a different hybrid--perfect for L.A.'s restless palates. Brazilian fare alone has dozens of influences. And now that local chefs are making artful blends of ethnic cuisines, you'd think South America's eclectic cooking would be right in vogue.
Ironically, the local supply of full-scale South American restaurants is scarce. Fortunately a number of South American delis take up the slack, offering the best dishes of the region.
In Argentina, fabricas de empanadas are a rather recent phenomenon; they have sprung up everywhere in the last 10 years. Empanada's Place, patterned after these Argentine turnover shops, is the only one in L. A. The tiny deli on a remote side street survives by making empanadas that elevate this country's national snack to new heights.
Fat little pillows of the thinnest pastry are stuffed with delectably fresh ingredients and artful seasonings. Fillings are far more adventurous than the usual ground beef; at least a dozen regional varieties are available every day. These include chunky chicken, mushroom, cheese or broccoli. There is also one made of buttery spinach laced with Parmesan and a slice of jack cheese. These empanadas are not quite traditional, for they are fried in vegetable oil instead of lard.
Though most customers spirit their empanadas away by the boxload, several tiny tables draped with baroque hand-crocheted tablecloths invite you to stay for a quick cappuccino or to sample a few of chef Norma Gil's latest empanada creations.
Apart from beverages, the deli offers two other items. There is a moist, Argentine-style tamale made of creamy masa patted around seasoned chicken; it is served without any sauce. There is also the traditional milanesa, or breaded beef sandwich. The intense espresso will help you get up from the table after such a meal.
Empanada's Place, 3811 Sawtelle Blvd., Culver City, (213) 391-0888, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. A second will open soon at 8566 West Pico Blvd., (213) 854-3373.
Cevicheria El Silencio is tucked away on an obscure stretch of Burbank Boulevard. If you have not guessed their specialty, you'll know it the minute you step in, for three huge pans of different ceviches dominate the deli case.
The plainest of these is fresh raw fish marinated in lemon and flecked with fresh hot peppers, red onion and parsley. But the best is ceviche mixto , which at $6.50 has fish and more kinds of shellfish than the ceviche el Silencio at $8. Each ample serving comes with an inch of fresh corn on the cob and a chunk of cooked sweet potato.
Conchas a la criolla is similar to ceviche, in that the lemon juice "cooks" the scallops; tiny squares of diced tomato and crunchy onion add savor. Customers happily devour conchas and mussels prepared in the same manner at the deli's long white tiled bar, where they are served in large scallop shells.
El Silencio's brisk lunch trade caters primarily to animated South Americans who enjoy explaining their favorite dishes. The Incan-inspired cooking of Peru and more European-influenced style of Chile fill the plates here; these cuisines frequently overlap. Papas a la huancaina-- a Peruvian version of sliced potato salad is perfect for
soothing taste buds between bites of the spicy seafood. A papa rellena is mashed potato covering a slightly sweet beef and onion filling studded with raisins, olives and chopped egg.
If the range of selection in the deli isn't sufficient, there is a restaurant area that offers at least a dozen cooked seafood dishes to go. Calamar en su tinto travels well. And the unusual soups-- caldo de choro of mussels, or a South American shrimp soup--can be very successfully reheated. While you're waiting, try picarones-- Peruvian doughnuts with syrup.
Cevicheria El Silencio, 14111 Burbank Blvd. (at Hazeltine), Van Nuys, (818) 997-9412. Open Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday noon-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday noon-10 p.m.. Closed Tuesday.
On a sunny afternoon, I was sitting at a sidewalk table, enjoying unfamiliar appetizers at Zilda's Brazilian deli. A green Jaguar rolled up to the curb. Its passengers went in and without giving the menu a glance ordered in Portuguese. Their conversation, mingling with taped samba music, came floating joyously out the door.
Customers feel at home at this tiny place hidden away in a mostly residential area. On Sunday, Brazilians who look as if they they had stepped off Ipanema Beach stroll in for orders of Feijoada, Brazil's national meal.