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Plaza de Cafes Puts a Spin on Global Experience

August 05, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Think of Plaza de Cafes as an indoor courtyard for international dining, a place to nosh on anything you want--Greek, Oriental, deli, Cajun or whatever. It has a prime location in Newport Beach near John Wayne Airport and plenty of space. The food concessions surround a sunken center dining area highlighted by an international parade of flags. There is even a small outdoor patio for dining al fresco.

On paper, this place should draw a big crowd. So where are all the people? It's barely 2:30, and nearly all these concession stands are shuttered.

One problem is an excessive reliance on tired steam-table specialties, but another might be all that diversity itself. Quite a few of these concessions are serving dishes their owners are barely familiar with. The tandoori chicken, for instance, is prepared by Thais; the Chinese and Japanese concessions belong to Koreans. These culinary crosscurrents aren't a problem when the dishes work, as they do at Armenian-run Gyro King, the plaza's Greek restaurant (no relation to the restaurant of the same name in Placentia). But they usually don't.

Let's start our culinary odyssey at Gyro King, because it is the most consistent performer here. Unlike most of his competitors, proprietor Avo Kilicarslan prepares the bulk of his food to order, often grilling meats and fish that have been nicely marinated and trimmed.

For $7.99 you get a huge combo plate consisting of gyro lamb, chicken and beef shish kebabs on wooden skewers, a grilled patty of spiced beef, creamy hummus dip, a vinegar- and parsley-rich tabbouleh salad, good rice and hot pita bread. Kilicarslan also is proud of his baby calamari, his stuffed grape leaves, the spinach pie--and of the fact that he uses cholesterol-free cooking oils.

The next stop is Gary's Deli, a branch of the Gary's on Pacific Coast Highway in Corona del Mar. Sandwiches are the specialty, and they are made to order from such well-steamed, machine-sliced deli meats as corned beef, pastrami and hot brisket of beef. The corned beef and pastrami triple-decker I sampled was lean and tasty, served on good rye bread with a half-sour pickle and a side order of cole slaw. Homey potato knishes , $1 apiece, sink right to the pit of your stomach in the approved style. Gary's also has Dr. Brown's sodas from New York: cream, celery, cherry, root beer, ginger ale.

"I'm not much of a businessman," apologizes Baton Rouge native Cliff Huffstetler, "but I am a good cook." His Ragin' Cajun Cafe is largely a steam-table operation, but many of these dishes are well suited to slow steaming. Besides, he barbecues chicken and turkey in the back.

If only he didn't run out of food so often. The menu's crawfish etoufee turns out to be turkey etoufee (Huffstetler says he plans to serve crawfish someday, but he's been substituting turkey since the restaurant opened in late June); the red beans and rice is usually gone by 1 p.m., and many of the other dishes are available on a random basis only.

Of what is here, jambalaya is probably the best bet. Huffstetler sautes chicken and sausage in a black iron skillet, then blends in rice, celery and other vegetables. His "bird" gumbo, made without seafood or file (the ground sassafras leaves used as a thickener in Cajun cooking), is lackluster. Grab the seasoned red beans when they are around. Huffstetler simmers them for hours with piquant spices and serves them with fluffy white rice.

Huffstetler is the real article, but Emma Herlihy of Dallas Burgers has a most unusual pedigree. She was born in Goa, on India's west coast, and reared in London; the weird Plaza de Cafes logic dictates that she do an all-American restaurant. The best thing here is the barbecued beef sandwich, with the meat cleaved off an enormous roast sitting in barbecue sauce under a heat lamp. Herlihy may offer you a sample as you walk by. Take it.

She serves a spicy, nearly all-meat chili with homemade corn bread for $3.99, grilled bratwurst sandwiches and a variety of burgers. Gooey potato skins, four to an order, are topped with cheese, sour cream, bacon and tomato. The one concession to her background is Cabot fish and chips. I didn't taste this dish, but it did look authentic.

The plaza's newest restaurant is World Affair. At the moment, the owner is offering a buffet for $2.99, calling it Pathan Karahi cuisine. Pathan is in India's Punjab and a karahi is a sort of heavy iron wok Punjabis cook on.

This is decent food and a good value. The buffet at present includes stewed garbanzo beans (channa masala), spiced eggplant, curried potatoes, a diced cucumber and tomato salad, an unctuous mint chutney and some braised, spiced chicken. In time, we are told, there will be more variety here, and a la carte items as well.

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