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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Jeep Thrills

September 06, 1990|JONATHAN GOLD

It used to be you were either on the bus or off the bus. Now, at the mid-Wilshire Filipino restaurant called Jeepney Grill, you can dine alongside the bus, which is plonked down right in the middle of the joint, taking up half the dining room.

The bus, vivid yellow, is plastered inside with bright, '70s-colored stickers that say things like Praise the Lord and Have a Nice Day; there are more happy faces than you've seen since "I'm OK, You're OK" was on the best-seller list. On one side of the bus, someone has painted a smoking volcano; above the windows, a jaunty "Philippines." Wings fashioned from tin and auto reflectors jut from the top of the bus like those on Mercury's helmet. Strips of macrame hang in the windows.

The bus is a jeepney, built on the chassis of a World War II U.S. Army jeep, and formerly part of a fleet of privately owned buses that provide public transit across Manila and surrounding towns. Apparently the jeepney evokes powerful nostalgia, because staid Filipino businessmen periodically come up to the bus and pat it as they would a cat or a splendid child. It's the sort of bus you'd expect an entire exhibit to be devoted to at a kitschy folk-art gallery like La Luz de Jesus, not find in front of a fashionable open kitchen in a gleaming mini-mall cafe.

Jeepney Grill might be the most accessible Filipino restaurant in Los Angeles, the place to go if you're fond of the garlicky, sour flavors of Filipino cooking but not of the liver sauces or thickened pig's-blood dishes that seem to dominate local menus. As its name implies, Jeepney Grill specializes in grilled food with a distinctive Filipino twist, as easy to eat as burgers and fries.

Barbecued pork and beef come sliced and skewered, crisped under a sweet coat of teriyaki-like sauce, and with a dip of mild vinegar. They're delicious, though you'd be hard-pressed to tell the beef from the pork with your eyes closed. Chicken barbecue is also skewered--the funny bits of dismembered wing that Foster Farms calls "drumettes"--and daubed with a sweet banana mush.

Big, grilled squid, the size of extra-large mittens, are tender beneath their crackly coat of teriyaki char and really taste of the sea. (You can pick up the crunchy tentacles with your fingers and eat them like French fries.) Short links of grilled longanisa , a pork sausage that tastes like a gamier Chinese lop chong , are served split on a bed of intensely garlicky ham-fried rice.

Best of all are the grilled pork chops, coated with a paste of vinegar, garlic and spices, which are salty and pungent and wonderful, and seem to have a dozen degrees of sour going on at once. Most of the barbecuedinners cost less than $5, and include pickles, soup--maybe a pork soup sharp with the taste of celery--and a huge mound of rice. Wash it down with a cool glass of buco , pale coconut water.

Not everything here is barbecue. Bulalo is marrowbone soup with cabbage, carrots and a refreshing sour flavor; divisoria lumpia are sauteed bean sprouts and cabbage and such wrapped in something like a rice crepe (the garnishes on that one include chopped peanuts with sugar, chile vinegar and minced raw garlic in a thick, soy-flavored syrup). Pancit luglog --a fishy dish of sauteed rice noodles sauced with a mixture of shrimp paste, cornstarch and achiote that looks and feels like raw egg yolk; topped with a mixture of pork cracklings and fried baby squid; with a pony of the fermented fish sauce called patis on the side--might be a little much for someone not brought up on the stuff.

And no Filipino meal is complete without the dessert halo-halo , sweet parfait-glassfuls of mung beans and baby coconut and jackfruit and Jell-O cubes and milk and whatever over ice. Jeepney tops theirs with little cubes of flan. The bus stops here.

Jeepney Grill, 3470 W. Sixth St., Los Angeles, (213) 739-2971. Open daily, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Cash only. Lot parking. No alcohol. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $6-$12.

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