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RESTAURANTS : RESTAURANT REVIEW : A Taste of Cuba : L.A.'s Versailles has been imported to the Valley with the same garlic chicken and the same long lines.

October 23, 1992|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The charge up San Juan Hill pales before the charge of Los Angeles restaurants to the San Fernando Valley. During the past year or so, we've gotten California Pizza Kitchen, Chin Chin and the Daily Grill. And here comes Versailles, Cuba's answer to Clifton's cafeteria.

This latest Versailles feels no different from the original on Venice Boulevard. It's a big, vulgar, brassy box, where waiters overdress in white shirts and black bow ties, salsa music drowns out an already impossible noise level and garlic-roasted chicken is the undisputed king. How did we ever get along without it?

Perhaps those familiar with the Mar Vista area are also acquainted with the original, a boxy roadhouse stuck in a dreary lot on the corner of Venice and Motor Avenue, with lines snaking around the block at all hours. A couple of years back, the owners got smart and decided to open a second location, in the flatlands of La Cienega Boulevard between Olympic and Pico. Now, Versailles has leaped into the Valley, and it's as if they moved the crowds along with it.

Not that we aren't grateful. Nothing about the external appearance of this place begins to suggest what you find inside, except, perhaps, the strong scent of garlic you meet as you pull up in the parking lot and hand your keys to a valet.

Soon you are seated and your table is covered with food, enormous quantities of rice, black beans and the meat of choice, almost always chicken.

I made the rounds one lunchtime, and saw that every diner in the room save one--a rugged-looking fellow with a fearsome glare and a battleship tattooed on each arm--was eating the roasted garlic chicken, as if nothing else on the huge menu existed. (Popeye was having the roast pork.) Six ladies of a certain age sat gnawing on their chicken. Later, one was heard to exclaim, "My goodness, Cuban food isn't like Mexican food at all!"

You don't really need appetizers here but should you decide to indulge, the choices are somewhat limited. The black bean soup is great, a thick, hearty bowl of beans swimming with the herb epazote and strongly flavored with cumin.

If you don't want beans twice, you could have the Cuban tamale, a yellow cylinder of mashed corn with a little gob of stewed pork inside. It's tasty but a little heavy on the vinegar, which is my main complaint about Versailles. Croquetas, nutmeg-flavored boulders deep-fried with a deviled ham filling, make great paperweights.

The entree specialties such as roasted chicken, pierna asada (roasted pork leg) and shrimp in garlic sauce are terrific, however, alongside your choice of white rice and black beans, brown rice and maduros (fried bananas) or, for an extra 50 cents, green bananas, or tostones .

I admit that this chicken is a masterwork. This may be the most massive, best-tasting and cheapest chicken dish anywhere. At $6.95, it is enough for two, with crisp, juicy skin, an overabundance of garlic and the faint taste of bitter orange.

The irony is, to my mind, pierna asada is every bit as good. This dish is slices of pork leg, the same dish traditionally served at Easter in Cuban homes, flavored with garlic and orange like its feathery friend.

Serious--I mean serious --garlic aficionados can even venture the shrimp, sauteed in a red oil that must contain a dozen minced cloves. Eat like a Cuban and order this with an a la carte side dish called congri, a drier version of black beans and rice cooked together.

There's plenty more on a menu that also features soft beef tongue, Cuban-style beef stew and a spate of fried and pickled fish dishes, though the waiters are programmed to serve you a chicken, and why not? Most everyone who comes in here is programmed to eat one.

Where and When

Location: Versailles, 17410 Ventura Blvd., Encino.

Suggested Dishes: roasted chicken, $6.45; pierna asada , $6.45; shrimp in garlic sauce, $8.95; beef tongue, $5.95.

Hours: Lunch and dinner, Sunday- Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11.a.m.-11 p.m.

Price: Dinner for two, $15-$25. Beer and wine only. Valet parking. American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

Call: (818) 906-0756.

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