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Down Mexican Way

June 19, 1988| Compiled by Kathie Jenkins

There's more to Mexican food than beans and burritos, as the following recently reviewed restaurants prove.

El Porton (1105 W. Whittier Blvd., Montebello (213) 888-8879). The ambiance here is about as subtle as a brass band, but it's festive and fun. It is a big, bright, cheerful place dominated by an open kitchen. Try a hearty bowlful of El Porton's chicken soup with rice and chick peas, but skip the salads. Instead, head straight to the incredible selection of tacos de cazuela. El Porton makes its own tortillas, and they are delightfully fresh--no wonder the tacos are so good. So is cochinita pibil --pork and annatto seed steamed in a banana leaf. Alambre , cubed beef with onions and bacon, is fabulous, and lomo enchilado , pork loin marinated with vinegar, red chile and garlic, is even better. For breakfast sip on good cafe de olla , a fresh-ground Mexican coffee with cinnamon that has a powerful kick, or hot chocolate--both go great with churros (those squiggly pastries fried in oil and rolled in sugar). Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. All major credit cards. Beer and wine. Parking lot. Dinner for two, food only, $10-$15.

Kaktus (400 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (213) 271-1856). Kaktus is small and modest with a turquoise accent here and there. Exotic menu attractions include huaraches , tamales filled with black beans or filet mignon steak in a mild sauce of chipotle chile, but the restaurant also prepares familiar dishes with elegance: Enchiladas suizas are light and fresh-tasting; shredded beef flautas (in red or green sauce) are crisp and not at all oily. The best thing on the menu is the restaurant's version of pescado al mojo de ajo --fish roasted, peppered and smothered in a mixture of fried garlic chips and strips of mild red chile. For dessert, there's a nice rice pudding--cold and crunchy, heavy on the cinnamon and clove. The crepes with toasted almonds in a buttery caramel sauce are also excellent. Lunch and dinner Mon.-Sat. MasterCard, Visa, American Express. Full bar. Valet parking evenings. Dinner for two, food only, $35-$65.

La Paz (21040 Victory Blvd., Woodland Hills, (818) 883-4761). Not your typical-looking Mexican restaurant, La Paz Has a green-and-gray color scheme, industrial carpeting, shiny linens, and yards of overhead shelving holding old telephones, trinkets and toys. The menu is a little unusual, too. There are standard Mexican combinations such as tacos, enchiladas, and chile rellenos , but there are also frog legs, conch, tongue, barbecued goat and octopus. The seafood tacos, juicy and full of shrimp, octopus or fish, make good eating. So does the Maine lobster special, a huge red creature whose meat has been scooped out, sauced, repacked and sealed with a huge cape of bright yellow cheese. The Caldo de Siete Mares is work to eat, but the kind of work shellfish lovers love best--this voodoo stew is well-stocked with octopus, abalone, clams, oysters, shrimp, fish and crab legs. Tools and hand towels are provided. Lunch and dinner daily. All major credit cards, Beer and Wine. Valet parking. Dinner for two, food only, $25-$60.

Pocos Mexican Restaurant (20917 Sherman Way, Canoga Park, (818) 340-6546). This Mexican restaurant cooks without lard and with only a minimum of salt. The obligatory free chips are fried in soy oil and arrive with marinated vegetables and salsa made from grilled tomatoes and jalapenos. Since Pocos has only a beer and wine license, they make their Margaritas with Chablis--frothy, but not too sweet, and very delicious. The deep-fried whole fish makes a good addition to a multidish feast shared by several people (it weighs about three pounds and hangs over the ends of a 12-inch dinner plate). Also satisfying is the camarones Imperiales (shrimp with bacon and bell pepper). Fish entrees are served with rice and julienned zucchini, carrots and squash. Portions are very generous. Skip dessert and go for a good strong espresso or cappuccino. Lunch and dinner daily. MasterCard, Visa, American Express. Beer and wine. Parking lot. Dinner for two, food only, $15-$50.

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