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RESTAURANT REVIEW : 2 for a Hungary Appetite : Europa offers a cozy, multicultural atmosphere. Hortobagy challenges diners with mountains of pasta and grilled meats.

June 11, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A few of us were in the mood for Eastern European the other night, so we decided to stop by Europa, a quirky little restaurant located on a quiet corner of Magnolia Boulevard.

Europa is a restaurant that could only happen in Los Angeles. Owner Stan Rivera is Portuguese from Hawaii, but weird Southland logic makes it possible for his restaurant to specialize in quasi-Hungarian dishes.

Think of this place as a cozy neighborhood cafe. It has red leatherette booths, and the solid customer base consists mainly of locals. Rivera performs much of the service himself, and he love to chat. He's also mad for desktop publishing, as the menu's unusual designs show.

Everybody seems to love his leading appetizers, such as homemade egg rolls filled with minced pork, water chestnuts and other goodies. But his dinners are already substantial enough without a starter, thank you. All the entrees--there are two dozen or so--come with hearty soups, such as flavorful chicken ginger soup, or a chopped salad fortified with a few strands of pasta. You also get some slices of addictive pumpernickel cheese bread, with an odd-looking but delicious orange crust.

It's only natural to wonder how such a small restaurant can support such a large menu. Part of the answer is that not every dish is available every day; the regular menu is largely a list of potential daily specials. Still, more of the answer probably has to do with the steady beep-beep-beep of a kitchen microwave, which you do not hear when the restaurant is crowded.

Roast Long Island duckling is a best buy at only $11.95. Europa's is one of the best in the San Fernando Valley, almost fat-free with a nice crisp skin. The chicken paprikash doesn't have enough sour cream or paprika to fool a Hungarian; it's more of a generic chicken stew. But it's still pleasing--soft, falling-off-the-bone pieces of chicken in a savory sauce of peppers, onions and fresh tomatoes.

And where else can you get a peppery Hungarian goulash for only $8.95, and have homemade strawberry shortcake with a baking-powder rich biscuit underneath for dessert? Only in L.A., I swear.

*

The venerable Hortobagy, on the other hand, is where you go to eat and enjoy a lively atmosphere thick with the sound of the Hungarian language and savor the true Hungarian heavy-hitter dishes: mountains of cabbage pasta, mountains of grilled meats, mountains of chestnut puree.

This is a Los Angeles tradition by now, but you may not know that Hortobagy has actually been evolving over the last few years. Whether to go along with today's emphasis on diet, or simply in recognition that Southern California's balmy climate is nothing like that of the snowy Carpathians framing Hungary, the dishes are now cooked in vegetable oil rather than lard. Not only does the menu list some new, lighter dishes, it now trumpets Hortobagy as Hortobagy Grill , a sign of au courant- ness if there ever was one.

Of course, you could start off a meal here with a traditional blood-congealing plate of kacsa toportyu . . . if, say, you've just finished an ascent of a mountain. It's duck cracklings, and they certainly are good with onions and rye bread. Or you could polish off a plate of mixed sausages and Liptauer cheese spread if you're in the mood, before following up with one the new menu's pastas from southeastern Hungary, such as the tempting turos teszta toportyuvel (cottage cheese noodles with bacon crumbs) or borsos kaposztas teszta , flat noodles with braised cabbage and white pepper (a Hungarian's idea of a light dish).

The main dishes aren't noticeably lighter, but there are now far more to choose from. Whenever I come here I order the farmer's plate, with its slab of roast pork, mixed sausages (liver and rice, garlicky pork) and sides of red cabbage and fried potatoes. But I like the dependable classics too; Transylvanian goulash (a piquant veal stew with caraway seeds and sauerkraut), braised beef, Wiener schnitzel and, of course, the cream-rich chicken paprikash.

My favorite course here is, now and forever, dessert. Hungarian desserts are transcendent, cherished holdovers from the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Palascintas are crepes, here filled with apricot puree and finely powdered walnuts. Chestnuts come in tiny wormlike shapes of puree, fluffed up with whipped cream. And then there are these ethereal apple and cherry strudels, known as retes (ray-tesh) to a Magyar. When you start hearing violins, it's time to stop.

WHERE AND WHEN

* Location: Europa, 14929 Magnolia Blvd., Sherman Oaks.

* Suggested Dishes: homemade egg rolls, $4.25; roast Long Island duckling, $11.95; strawberry shortcake, $3.

* Hours: Dinner only, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Beer and wine only.

* Price: Dinner for two, $20 to $32. Parking in side lot. MasterCard and Visa accepted.

* Call: (818) 501-9175.

* Location: Hortobagy, 11138 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.

* Suggested Dishes: Hortobagy mixed plate, $5.50; borsos kapostzas teszta , $5.25; farmer's plate, $11.50; Transylvanian goulash, $11.95.

* Hours: Lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.

* Price: Dinner for two, $25 to $40. Beer and wine only. Parking in rear lot. MasterCard and Visa accepted.

* Call: (818) 980-2273.

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