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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Baby, It's Chile Inside

February 18, 1993|JONATHAN GOLD

If you haven't reserved a table at Rincon Chileno, you will probably be exiled for a while to the restaurant's delicatessen, where the smell of freshly baked empanadas will drive you mad. More than once, I have surveyed the chances of getting in, and settled instead for a car picnic of empanadas , a bottle of Cousino Macul Antigua Riserva Cabernet, and a sandwich, chacarero , that involves grilled beef, tomato and slivered green beans in a dense, flat Chilean roll. (Don't forget to ask for some fiery green hot sauce, pebre , with your sandwich.) For dessert, there are flaky Chilean pastries filled with thick homemade caramel. Rincon Chileno is conceivably the only restaurant in L.A. where it can be pleasurable to be turned away.

Rincon Chileno is an old-fashioned ethnic restaurant on the eastern end of Melrose, famous in its day as a place for an exotic date, closer in atmosphere to the Latin restaurants in New York's West Village than to the divier yet ultra-authentic places you now expect in Hollywood. Rincon Chileno has clean tablecloths, attractive prints on the walls and starched, almost formal, service, as well as an extensive list of hard-to-find Chilean wines, which is what the wine nerds have been nattering about since drinkable Italian reds got too expensive. Nobody talks about the restaurant that much anymore, but it's as crowded as ever.

It's sort of splendid inside, really, with a Saturday-night buzz in the air, garlic and smoke, a handsome crooner named Ivan who sings sad songs to the recorded guitar tracks on his tape machine. Ivan flows into an early Elvis song, and a man escorts his date into a clearing in the middle of the main dining room, then leads her, with the starchy snap of a professional tango instructor, through a precise sock-hop Lindy.

A waiter shows some customers a flyer advertising a soccer match pitting the restaurant against its rival, Cafe Valparaiso, then mimes a goal-scoring header. Notices from the Chilean consulate are posted near the door . . . Rincon Chileno is as much a community center as it is a restaurant.

Chile is a long, thin country that is almost all seacoast, and the cold-water currents nurture some of the oddest seafood in the world. Some of this makes its way to the restaurant fresh, but most of the shellfish, unfortunately, comes from cans: marinated canned Chilean giant abalone with potato salad, marinated canned pink clams, various marinated canned shellfish with bits of fin-fish in a mixed ceviche . These appetizers are actually fine--chewy, slightly spicy, freshened with lime--but you might want to avoid ordering more than one of them. The seafood soup paila , full of the shellfish, tastes more of can than of seafood.

The famous fish of Chile, aside from the Chilean "sea bass" that is ubiquitous on the menus of swank Westside cafes, is something called congrio , a tasty, white-fleshed fish that tastes a little like halibut might taste if halibut had any flavor and comes in long, firm fillets. Congrio is delicious fried in a light, crisp batter, looking like nothing so much as something off an oversize fish 'n' chips platter, sided with a chopped-tomato salad that is like a Chilean pico de gallo . Congrio is sort of strange in a cream sauce studded with chopped canned shellfish.

Humitas , Chilean tamales, are terrific here, sweetly spiced, intensely corn-flavored, with the consistency of a steamed pudding. Steak, lomo , is thin, marinated and chewy in the South American tradition, and might come garnished with a fried egg or with a side of the wonderful, spice-fragrant yellow-bean stew parotos granados . Pollo arvejado is a chicken that has been stewed with a large quantity of canned peas, which is homey but perhaps not a dish worth the journey. Pastel de choclo , a pan-Andean favorite, is a sweet, nutmeg-laced corn pudding that conceals a chicken leg at its core.

But the restaurant's great specialty might be the appetizer erizo matico , marinated giant sea urchin, the powerfully nutty iodine smack nearly tamed by the flavors of citrus and finely minced onion. The erizo is delicious, crammed full of aphrodisiac nutrients, but really too rich to eat more than a few bites of--even if you are trying to preserve the honor of your country.

A waiter sees a few bites of uneaten sea urchin and shakes his head sadly.

"You didn't like it," he says. "I knew the flavor was too strong for Americans."

Erizo also kills the wine.

Rincon Chileno

4354 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 666-6075. Open Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Beer and wine. Takeout. Parking around the corner on Heliotrope. American Express, Carte Blanche, Diners Club, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $18-$32.

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