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Panucho Villa

April 29, 1993|JONATHAN GOLD

El Emperador Maya is a small, neat restaurant near the southern edge of San Gabriel, rather out of the Asian part of the city and just down the street from a massive Serbian church. El Emperador serves the exotic cooking of Yucatan. If you park up the block near Der Wienerschnitzel, you have to walk by El Emperador's kitchen door. The terrific funk of grilled meat and garlic may tempt you to bypass the dining room altogether, to sneak in and grab a slab of pork from the fire.

Yucatecan food can be among the most delicious food on earth, lively with citrus, fragrant of exotic spice, stinging with ample lashings of the native habanero chile, one of the hottest peppers on earth. Yucatecan cuisine, more akin to the cooking of nearby Guatemala than to what most people think of as Mexican food, may be the closest thing to what Mayans ate before Cortez.

Though Yucatecan cooking may be common enough in Merida, it is relatively hard to find in Los Angeles, and out of the half-dozen local restaurants reputed to serve the cuisine these days, only El Emperador really comes through with the goods. (I still miss the tiny Silver Lake joint El Cochinito, where I first learned about panuchos and salbutes , about bright-red pickled onions and the odd, crunchy half-chicken tostada called pollo Motuleno .) El Emperador may be a tidy place, all prim curtains, cute figurines, customers in ties, but the flavors of its cooking are strong and agrestic, yet clean, the sort of thing one might expect from the chef at a first-class Yucatecan resort hotel.

The restaurant is far from undiscovered: Framed magazine reviews line the walls, and the people at the next table may be discussing deal memos or trading insider gossip about the folding of HG. The service is prompt and discreet. A 20-minute straight shot on the 10 from Santa Monica, El Emperador, along with La Serenata di Garibaldi, may be the most popular Eastside restaurant among the Armani-clad Westside crowd.

The pungent, anchovy-rich Caesar salad is outstanding, super-crisp, reeking of garlic, as slippery as you could wish--even better than the Caesars at restaurants that wheel out two captains and 15 bowls when you order it. (El Emperador may be one of the few remaining restaurants on this hypersensitive planet to still use the traditional coddled egg.) The sauteed calamari appetizer, a frequent special, involves a big steak of the stuff, heavily garlicked and tender as tofu, on a bed of fideo noodles. Guacamole is pleasantly chunky, though perhaps over-flavored with citrus. Shrimp Felipe, firm and sweet, are sauced with a subtly brandied cream. If a menu item here might also conceivably be served at, say, La Scala Boutique, it is apt to be quite good.

Cochinita pibil , highly spiced chunks of pork roasted in a banana leaf, is delicious, lacking in the numbing richness you might associate with the dish. Poc chuc , the chile-rubbed pork steak that is more or less the Yucatecan signature dish, here resembles a good version of the more common Mexican adobado , edged with a sweet rim of char. Chiles rellenos are made with firm, tasty pasilla chiles, stuffed with a tasty paste of beef, the kind of chiles rellenos you could imagine paying $22 for in a fancy Southwestern restaurant.

But although the chef's skill and finesse are unquestionable, his technique might ironically work against the power of the restaurant's Yucatecan dishes, which sometimes seem to lack that extra punch of peasanty robustness that marks the very best Latin American food. Panuchos , which are traditionally oily, puffy tortillas stuffed with seasoned black beans, the top skin almost melting into the beans and contrasting with the crispness underneath, are here made with crisp tortillas smeared with black beans, then garnished with the customary topping of stewed turkey and red pickled onion. The panuchos are fine--it's difficult to imagine a meal here without at least one split order as an appetizer--but are somehow a little dull in their cleanness, flat in their lack of grease . . . but of course, that could explain the Westside clientele.

The sweet bread pudding called caballero pobre, El Emperador's signature dessert, may be more bread than pudding, served with rainbow sherbet and an apricot sauce; the cream cheese flan is a dead-on bit of rich blandness, perfect after a chile-filled meal.

El Emperador Maya

1823 S. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel, (818) 288-7265. Open Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Beer and wine. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Takeout. Free delivery within two miles. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$28.

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