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The Return of Don Luis

July 15, 1993|JONATHAN GOLD

For a long time, everybody I knew went to the old El Cochinito on Sunset, because it was cheap, and sort of cool-looking, and just about the only place around that specialized in the spicy, fragrant cooking of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. They understood poets and musicians at El Cochinito, understood a sweet guanabana raspado on a hot July afternoon, understood the raw, peasant-y appeal of Yucatecan food.

Around the ancient lunch counter or at the half-dozen flyspecked tables, neighborhood Yucatecos mingled with the impoverished Silver Lake art-hound set, drawn by three-buck lunch specials, fresh carrot juice and the house's incredible tropical-fruit milkshakes--also by the duskily pungent hot sauce and the free squares of fried pork skin that were served instead of chips. There were exotically spiced chicken dishes, and terrific varieties of antojitos , masa -based snacks that were closer to what you might think of as Central American food than to the usual Mexican stuff.

But the place was old, and looked old, and the owner eventually moved El Cochinito to a new mini-mall a few blocks east before becoming too ill to continue. His partner gradually shifted the restaurant's emphasis from Yucatecan cooking to fairly pedestrian Cuban fare. Before long, the panuchos and codzitos had been replaced by croquetas and platanos , the cochinito pibil by lechon asado , and the old crowd turned its Yucatecan hungers toward places like El Emperador Maya and the Merida, which were more refined perhaps, but lacked El Cochinito's earthy appeal. We missed the food; more than that we missed the old guy, Luis Manrique, who took so much pride in his scarlet pickled onions, and who called most of us "My American Customer."

Manrique popped up again a couple of months ago with a brand-new place, Don Luis El Yucateco, in the same mini-mall as the old one: a stark, clean dining room with Mayan pyramids painted on the walls; a juicer in the corner; the old menu, but packaged in a handsome pyramid-embossed cover rather than scrawled on a blackboard. Big families, unemployed set-dressers, gentry from the Silver Lake hills still populate the tables. Black beans and pork is still Monday's special of the day. And Manrique still roams the restaurant, a generous host to the last.

"These are sufridos ," he says, handing each of you a crisply fried tortilla smeared with black beans and drizzled with sauce, "for you, from me, compliments of the house." When he speaks, it seems as if every third word should be spelled all in capital letters.

" Ahhhh ," he says, "You like my onions." He plops down a dish of his violently red pickled onions that is the size of a cereal bowl. He may bring out extra servings of his intense, brick-red salsa, or of his chiles, or of freshly toasted tortillas.

"It is necessary to sprinkle this as so," he demonstrates, pointing to a bowl of fresh tomato salsa and miming a figure-eight pouring motion over a plate of black beans. You wonder how he can afford such generosity in a restaurant where no entree tops $5.

The best things at Don Luis tend to be the Yucatecan antojitos , which have no equals in town. Panuchos are oily, puffy tortillas stuffed with seasoned black beans. The top skin of the panucho turns brittle and transparent, acting as almost a window onto the beans underneath; the bottom layer is pullier, almost chewy. The panuchos are garnished with a handful of the pickled onions and a heap of Yucatecan-style citrus-marinated roast pork, cochinito pibil , and are irresistibly crunchy, greasy and tart even without an extra dab of salsa. Salbutes are sort of masa boats, a little like a sope but somehow more friable, more fragile, garnished like the panuchos but smacking a little more of corn and hot oil; codzitos are rolled tortillas fried crisp and served in a warm tomato sauce.

Essentially, aside from a bigger serving of the cochinito pibil you probably had as an appetizer, the main courses consist of chicken, chicken and chicken, roasted a little too far in advance: served in a hot, subtle onion vinaigrette ( en escabeche ); served in a spicy sauce based on ground pumpkin seeds ( pepian ); smothered in a black Yucatecan mole sauce; or as pollo Motuleno, sandwiched between two fried tortillas, sprinkled with pickled onions and Parmesan, perched on a layer of black beans. But why not?

* Don Luis El Yucateco 3510 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 913-1932. Open Friday through Wednesday, 11:15 a.m. to 9 p.m. (Closed Thursdays.) No alcohol. Takeout. Cash only. Lot parking. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $8-$11.

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