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A Taste of the World : * When visitors demand to be fed 'something we can't find back home,' try the Valley's diverse dining opportunities.

June 25, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants weekly for Valley Life.

Summer's upon us and so are the relatives, many of whom need to be fed almost constantly. Demanding, aren't they?

Need you be reminded that they didn't come here, America's great ethnic stewpot, expecting to fill up on burgers and pizza?

"We want something we can't find back home," you hear them cry, making a mental note that home is places like Muscatine, Iowa; Asheville, N.C., and Madawaska, Me. Well, lift that head up high. You'll be ready for them this year.

The San Fernando Valley's ethnic diversity is staggering, and this is the perfect time to take advantage. Try wowing Aunt Martha and Cousin Harold with the following half-dozen restaurants:

Cha Cha Cha

Chef Toribio Prado, who founded this colorful place, is an original and so is this restaurant, a sun-splashed palace of Caribbean camp. This is the Valley's offshoot of the slightly fruity and wildly successful Melrose Avenue eatery; a restaurant that mixes Cuban, Jamaican, African and "pan-island" sensibilities. Walls are the colors of molting tropical birds. Pineapples perch precipitously on every table.

Most people begin a meal here with silly tropical drinks in tall, cool glasses crowned with plumeria , then progress to such items as jerked chicken pizza, crispy, spicy chunks of fried Jamaican pork with three salsas; camerones negros , fat shrimp in a hot black pepper sauce served over a bed of coconut-infused rice, or a variety of piquant, grilled meats.

This is the place to go when you want a lively evening. The staff is lighthearted and energetic, there's a boisterous, party-on clientele, and everyone is cheered by the outrageous desserts, a perfect metaphor for this madhouse.

17499 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 789-3600. Moderately priced.

Haifa

Greater Los Angeles has the largest concentration of Israelis in the United States outside of New York, and therefore a plethora of Israeli restaurants. Haifa is Glatt Kosher, a restaurant conforming strictly to Jewish dietary law. This means no dairy products, as the restaurant serves meats, which are taboo around dairy.

The restaurant is bright, boxy and basic, the food distinctly Middle Eastern. All meals are accompanied by little dishes of spicy Turkish salad, a relish made from chopped tomatoes, cumin and olive oil; purple-colored pickled radish; bitter green olives, and stacks of grilled pita bread. The wonderfully hearty Yemeni soup is a rich, highly spiced lamb broth full of beans, potatoes and spices. Eggplant tahina is a smoky puree, chopped baked eggplant mashed with tahini, a paste made from ground sesame.

This can be heavy food, some dishes having been transplanted to Israel from chilly Eastern Europe. The comforting baked chicken is a bit fattier than what you might be used to, served with a mountain of green beans and rice. On weekends the restaurant features cholent, a Jewish cassoulet of white beans, stewed meats, potatoes and carrots. Don't order this one on a warm day.

Haifa, 15464 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 995-7325. Inexpensive.

Balalayka

Reseda's Balalayka has a Russian-sounding name (a balalaika is that three-stringed lute being plucked in "Doctor Zhivago,") but the cuisine here really speaks for an entire continent. Owner Robert Chargchian is an Armenian who learned to cook in Ukraine, and his repertory of dishes is nearly as wide as the Volga itself.

Our Russian restaurants tend to be housed in vast, dark chambers, cavernously empty during the week, jammed to the rafters on weekends. On busy nights you dine alongside a colorful crowd, assembling to feast on a fabulous spread of hot and cold Russian hors d'oeuvres: marinated mushrooms; assorted pickles; pureed eggplant; a creamy salad of potato, pea, sour cream, chicken meat and dill called Stolichny , and tkemali , a traditional Georgian condiment made from pomegranate, garlic, coriander and red pepper.

Entrees run to Siberian dumplings called pelmeni ; Pokarsky, lamb chops marinated in pomegranate juice, garlic and coriander; tabaka , crisp, flat grilled Cornish game hen, and the ubiquitous chicken Kiev. Better skip lunch.

19655 Sherman Way, Reseda, (818) 349-5300. Moderate to expensive.

Angkor

Thai cooking has become almost mainstream, and Vietnamese cooking is available in limited fashion in every corner of this country. But one cuisine that remains relatively unknown is Cambodian, which I would describe loosely as a cross between the two.

Angkor is the only Cambodian restaurant I know of away from Long Beach, where the Cambodian-American community is centered. The flavors are subtle in this cooking, plenty of exotic lemon grass, lime leaf, tamarind seed and ginger. It's milder than its Thai cousin, and hearty soups play a major role.

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