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RESTAURANTS : CRUISING THE CARIBBEAN : Toribio Prado's Newest Cha Cha Cha Is a Spicy, Exotic Island in Long Beach

April 11, 1993|Charles Perry

What's going on here? Brass palm fronds hanging from the ceiling, folkish paintings in tropical colors on the walls, a casually sketched logo that appears to represent a trio of voluptuous angels. Every table in the room has a pineapple on it.

The food leans to exotic spices and quantities of both pineapple and coconut, and the wine list supplements an array of colorfully named cocktails, mostly based on rum. Are we talking Polynesian cuisine here?

No way, absolutely not--how could you even suggest such a thing? We're talking Caribbean cuisine, an altogether different kettle of shrimp. To be precise, we're talking the third addition to the fledgling Cha Cha Cha restaurant chain run by talented chef Toribio Prado. The new Long Beach branch occupies a quaint location, convenient to the Metro Blue Line on Pacific Avenue, that for decades served as a Mission Revival-style gas station.

Anyone who has eaten at a Cha Cha Cha in Los Angeles or the Valley will find the Long Beach menu familiar, though as usual with slight changes from the other branches--goat cheese instead of Mexican cheese in the garlic pizza, shrimp cakes in place of crab cakes. The sauce on the jerk pork, for instance, seems to lack the curry-like overtones I'm familiar with and tastes like a very good barbecue sauce. The meat is wonderful, as tender as if it had been braised. I could eat it like candy.

Sopes de pollo are purely Mexican, small corn tostadas filled with black beans, chicken and vegetables. The shrimp cakes, three small patties of ground shrimp, come with a tartar sauce laced with citrus and a dash of red pepper. The spicy corn chowder includes some red pepper, too, as you might expect, and also a sweet, surprising whiff of tarragon. I find the tortilla soup rather dull, though--a bale of tortilla strips lolling in tomato soup.

You can get pizzas at Cha Cha Cha, some rated Caribbean by virtue of the spices. They have thin crusts and may be positively crunchy. The garlic pizza, made with goat cheese, roasted garlic cloves and fresh oregano, is like a particularly snappy hot canape in the large economy size.

Most entrees come with rice, excellent black beans and wishy-washy tostones (if you're going to fry plantains, they should either be definitely sweet or definitely starchy). Roast pollo a la naranja may have a rather dubious name, but it never fails to impress. How does Prado get that incredibly lush, almost puffy, texture in roast chicken? This is pure fun food, without any excessive orange flavor.

Jamaican jerk chicken, a first cousin to the jerk pork, does not rely on the traditional Jamaican flavoring of allspice but on something like an American barbecue sauce, slightly sweet-sour, which tastes as if it contains tomato, vinegar and tamarind. So call it high-class barbecue; if I were in the mood for something spicy, I might even prefer it to the pollo a la naranja.

The thick pork chop is almost as tender as the pollo a la naranja . It's dark pink in the middle--fashionably and acceptably medium rare--which may disturb some people. As the name, chuleta albaricoque , indicates, it comes with a tiny bit of apricot sauce flavored with fresh ginger. Much further along in the sweet-sour vein (but not Polynesian, I swear) is St. Bart's curry shrimp, where the shrimp is baked with rice, pineapple, coconut and a sweet, mild curry sauce in a hollowed-out half pineapple. It definitely calls out for a tall rum drink on the side.

The curry sauce on the lamb brochettes has more interesting spices and a vivid citrus flavoring, but the barbecued lamb is disappointingly fatty and gristly. The only other entree that isn't up to the standards of the first two Cha Cha Chas is the pescado Vera Cruzano. I expected something less vague and mushy.

The desserts make little or no compromise with the tropical motif. One is a wonderful chocolate souffle cake, a light, faintly grainy and strongly chocolate-flavored filling in a bit of crust. The ice cream sandwich is two large cookies around vanilla ice cream, cut into eighths, with bitter-chocolate sauce, fresh caramel sauce, coconut and macadamias. A white rose sits in the middle of the wedges on a mound of whipped cream. There's also a sort of vanilla sundae in cinnamon-caramel sauce with three immense canola sticks poking out of it.

We wouldn't want to compare Caribbean cuisine to Polynesian--and I swear I'm not doing that--because of the bad reputation Polynesian earned for appealing to the naive, undiscriminating palate of sweet-toothed Americans. Part of that is historical accident, because the heyday of Polynesian was just before Americans started becoming more discriminating. Vic Bergeron, who invented Polynesian cuisine in his Trader Vic's restaurants, was recognized as an important culinary innovator; he had the misfortune to die just as the foodie revolution was beginning. Prado, fortunately, will be with us for quite a while.

The Original Cha Cha Cha, 762 Pacific Ave., Long Beach; (310) 436-3900 . Lunch and dinner served daily. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $31-$54.

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