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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Mexican Exotica Featured at the El Paso Cantina Grill

October 27, 1989|CHARLES PERRY

D eja mange . . . it starts out like a case of deja mange. A tart tomatillo sauce, a mild red chile sauce with a roasted flavor, fresh flour tortillas made by a slightly scary-looking tortilla-stamping machine at the entrance.

The restaurant, which utilizes the word grill in its name, is the showcase of a chain with Orange County roots.

However, this is not the El Torito Grill but the El Paso Cantina Mexican Grill. It's not somewhere in Beverly Hills, but at the old 385 North location on La Cienega, brightly lit but with a dim (and underutilized) bar.

And it doesn't claim to be Southwestern but attempts Authentic Mexican, to cite the title of a book by one of the authors of the menu. So the decor is grotesque Day of the Dead mask, not Navajo rug motif, and the food is not so much inventive as authentic exotic: say, jicama salad topped with pomegranate seeds.

The appetizers might be the best part of the meal. Tortilla soup, filled with tortilla strips that virtually turn into fettuccine, is stunningly flavorful, the broth dark mahogany brown from ground dried chiles. One of the quesadillas is made with a smooth and mild goat cheese, sweetened with grilled red onions. Even things that are often boring are likely to be worth trying; the taquitos are for once genuinely crisp, and about as good as taquitos will ever get.

Special appetizers might include gorditas, little corn masa cakes the size of a Ritz cracker split open and filled with guacamole and various meats. When tamales are offered, the rich, light masa might be stuffed with duck. Great fun. On the other hand, the Mexico City quesadillas are a little less interesting than they sound, being more like deep-fried turnovers. Call them smallish corn meal samosas filled with cheese.

Entrees on the regular menu are limited to only tacos, enchiladas and burritos. To be sure, among the tacos you can order duck or catfish, and once in a while, on special, there's a rather beef-like venison marinated in hot pepper and cumin. The enchiladas, for their part, have meaty stuffings and a mouth-filling dark red chile sauce with a smoky, bittersweet flavor.

The small regular menu might lead you to presume that the drama will be on the large list of entree specials. Well, yes, there is drama in several senses. A grilled game hen, marinated in garlic and sweet spices, is a big surprise: the meatiest and most flavorful game hen I've ever had.

But the other specials are a very mixed bag. Scallops in spicy pipian verde sauce sounds interesting, but the sauce--elegant though it was with its hint of anise--had a thin, chilly quality. Duck breast in another version of pipian sauce, this one with chipotle peppers and ground pumpkin seeds, is more enjoyable. The question is exactly what this sauce has to do with duck. The rack of lamb in a pleasant, somewhat neutral cascabel pepper sauce has a faintly disagreeable smell, possibly some diabolical compound of the scorched exterior of the meat and the aromas of squash and beans.

Tread a little carefully among the specials, say I. But the desserts, like the appetizers, are very good. Espresso ice cream deserves special notice for the strongest, truest coffee flavor you're ever likely to taste below room temperature.

But it should be noted that these desserts are not always autentico Mexican. True, you can get flan or fried plantains--which are excellent, not mushy like the usual fried banana--served with banana walnut ice cream.

Most of the desserts, though, are things like chocolate pecan pie or apple-quince crisp topped with cinnamon ice cream. (Actually, the pie is nothing like an American pecan pie: it's just filled with chocolate and lots of pecans.)

Deja mange, it ends like a case of deja mange.

El Paso Cantina Mexican Grill, 385 N. La Cienega Blvd.; (213) 659-1533. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, for dinner nightly. Full bar. Valet parking. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $30 to $60.

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