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FOOD : Cruising Down Melrose to the Caribbean : Cha Cha Cha Brings Spicy Island Cuisine to the Urban Jungle

December 20, 1987|ROSE DOSTI | Rose Dosti is a Times staff writer.

CHA CHA CHA is nestled in a pocket of Los Angeles that makes you feel as if you are adventuring into a Caribbean jungle. You expect Ricardo Montalban to appear in his jungle whites and whack a path to the tiny blue-and-pink restaurant where happy sounds and smells waft through the screens.

You are greeted instead by Mario Tamayo--slight, smiling, street-smart--a gentle man with hair pulled back in a ponytail.

Originally from Colombia, Tamayo is the artist/conceptualizer/menu developer/decorator of Cha Cha Cha. Toribio Prado, his partner and chef, translates culinary ideas into tantalizing tastes that come both from memories of mother's cooking in Michoacan, on Mexico's eastern coast, and his own experiences in kitchens here and there, including that of the Ivy restaurant.

Tamayo visualized Cha Cha Cha long before it existed.The food in New York's Caribbean neighborhoods sparked the idea of bringing a Latin restaurant to Los Angeles. "I'm a great fan of Los Angeles, and I see it as the center of media in the world. I saw that Caribbean cuisine was as yet unexplored and decided to do it myself," Tamayo says.

With his strong art-merchandising sense and plenty of courage, Tamayo chose the east end of Melrose Avenue, hoping to attract the large circle of artists living and working in the downtown and Los Feliz areas. He painted the place in bright Caribbean colors, added whimsical art to the walls and brainstormed with Prado on dishes that would interpret Caribbean cuisine into a modern California genre with, of course, some nouvelle touches thrown in for good measure.

Strip steak is topped with julienned garden vegetables spiked with Caribbean flavors and jicama fries. There is marinated chicken in orange-vegetable sauce or a poblano sauce and a mixed-seafood plate topped with tomatillo sauce.

The success of Cha Cha Cha prompted Tamayo to fulfill his dream of opening a gallery to showcase artists he knew and admired. Shortly afterward, another restaurant, Cafe Mambo, was born to answer yet another need. "Breakfast was always my favorite meal of the day, but I'd have to drive to the Westside for something decent. Mambo and Cha Cha Cha came about because there were no other places like them in Los Angeles," Tamayo says.

CHA CHA CHA SOPA DE MAIS (Corn Chowder) 2 tablespoons butter 1 large Spanish (white) onion, finely chopped 2 red peppers, finely chopped 2 green peppers, finely chopped 1 large serrano pepper, finely chopped 7 or 8 medium-size ears fresh corn, kernels sliced off the cob 1/2 bunch tarragon, leaves only, chopped 1 teaspoon Indian black pepper Salt 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar 1 quart milk 1 quart water

Melt butter in medium saucepan. Add onion and cook 3 minutes. Add red, green and serrano peppers and saute 3 minutes. Add corn kernels and saute 10 minutes. Add tarragon leaves, black pepper, salt and sugar. Add milk and water. Bring to boil. Serve hot. Makes 3 1/2 quarts.

Food styling by Janet Miller / Prop styling by Rose Mary Aguayo / Fresh herbs courtesy of The Green House, Encinitas

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