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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Tropical Stew

September 16, 1993|JONATHAN GOLD

El Chori is the sweetest place, a tablecloth Cuban restaurant in a far corner of Bell: Families eat at tables for 10, a Sunday harpist strums in front of a ceiling-height mural of palm trees, and there's the clean funk of frying onions that is a reliable signal of the very best Latin American food. Posters for charanga shows dot the walls. An espresso machine hisses behind the cashier's desk. Children plow through platters of caramel-y fried bananas; their parents tuck into the peppery Creole vegetable stew ajiaco .

Some of the waitresses speak little English, but they are extremely patient with whatever halting Spanish you might be able to muster, occasionally patting their tummies and whispering " bien rico " when they feel you have ordered something particularly good.

If you ask Angelenos about Cuban food, they'll probably tell you about the garlicky roast chicken at Versailles (which seems to be the single favorite dish of half the people on the Westside), or the lemon-garlic turkey that somebody's Cuban grandmother made for Thanksgiving one year, or maybe the French-bread sandwiches that are served in eastside Cuban coffee shops. Hip people know that Versailles serves roast pork too.

Roast chickens are tasty, but Cuban cuisine is also rich, long-simmered stews, Spanish-inspired soups, giant tranchers of grilled meat rubbed with garlic. An evening at El Chori, which perhaps serves the most elegant Cuban food in the Southland, is all garlic, music and cold wine. El Chori doesn't serve roast chicken at all.

Some people mistake El Chori for a Spanish restaurant, but the paella and most of the strictly European items on the tapas section of the menu--fried hunks of dense chorizo sausage, slices of cured pork loin, superb salt-cod fritters, jamon serrano with imported Manchego cheese--might owe more to the proximity of the excellent Spanish delis in the South Bay than to any affinity with Spain. Try the excellent pickled tongue, thinly sliced, drenched in good olive oil.

Tasajo , which Cuban friends assure me is most authentically made with horse meat, is a stew of onions and sweet peppers and chewy bits of shredded salt-dried beef, splashed with Sherry,slightly spicy, and not unlike a Cuban version of a properly made Mexican machaca . Boliche asado , which seems more like a hearty German tavern dish than something you might eat on a hot day in the tropics, involves thick, soft slices of beef pot roast, flavored with smoky ham, tinged with bitter orange, served lukewarm with a thick brown gravy. A dish with the intriguing name of rabo encindido , which roughly translates as "tail in flames," is a meltingly tender oxtail stew, stained with tomato and amped up with spice.

On Sundays, El Chori serves a terrific Creole lamb stew, on Fridays salt-cod, on Saturdays giant lamb-shanks that sing with garlic. There are chicharrones de pollo , which are crunchy, thumb-size pieces of chicken thigh garnished with a sort of spicy Cuban piccalilli, and delicious steak a la cazuela braised in tomato sauce, and chunks of fat pork that have been marinated in garlic and orange and deep-fried to a numbingly rich crispness. Aside from a single overcooked flan (other flans were OK), only the sauteed chicken dishes, which all tend to be reheated and rubbery, have been less than very good.

Almost everything here comes with a platter of buttered rice and a large bowl of soupy black beans, or with garlic-sauced cassava root and a mound of the fried rice-bean dish called moros y christianos , "Moors and Christians." It is much easier to leave El Chori happy than hungry.

* El Chori

5147 Gage Ave., Bell, (213) 773-3011. Open Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Beer and wine. Lot parking. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Lunch for two, food only, $8-$10; dinner for two, food only, $13-$25.

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