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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Treehouse: Island in the Mainstream

September 23, 1993|JONATHAN GOLD

* Caribbean Treehouse

1226 Centinela Ave., Inglewood, (310) 330-1170. Open Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday noon-8 p.m. Beer and wine. Lot parking. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $9-$15.

For years, one of the most popular ethnic restaurants in Los Angeles was a Hollywood place called T & T. Tucked into a dusty storefront, it served Trinidadian cuisine, curries and rotis and foaming glasses of Irish moss--a groovy Caribbean restaurant. Trinidadian food was one of those trans-ethnic kind of deals--African influences running headlong into East Indian and native Carib-Indian flavors, and the result was as exotic as you could have wished. Then T & T closed, replaced by a truly crummy French bistro, moments before Cha Cha Cha made Caribbean food hip.

On a green stretch of Centinela, in the northwest corner of Inglewood, close to the La Brea commercial strip and not far from the lush lawns of Ladera Heights, Caribbean Treehouse is perhaps the only local restaurant that currently serves the spicy food of Trinidad and Tobago and is a logical place to eat before a game at the Forum or on the way back from LAX. Families crowd the place on weekends; African-American college students hang out here, decked out in the latest gear.

Caribbean Treehouse has pretty much the usual ethnic-restaurant kind of vibe, with thatch, travel posters and soda pop from exotic lands, except toward the rear of the restaurant, a giant palm tree grows straight out of the dining-room floor, thrusting through the ceiling and topping out a good 30 feet above the restaurant's roof. On a good night, a Trinidadian video might blare from the television set high in a corner, perhaps a souvenir of Carnival, or a shaky hand-held-camera document of a steel-band competition held in Port-of-Spain. (In one of the videos, the cameraman zooms in on a girl wiggling her rump and barely shifts his focus for the rest of the song.)

Service is casual to the extreme--if you want another bottle of pop, you walk over to the cooler and take one out yourself. Try the sorrel, which is similar to--but better than--the Mexican flower-petal drink jamaica , or a bottle of the thick ( really thick) peanut-butter beverage called peanut punch.

The first thing you should know about Caribbean Treehouse is that they're usually out of about everything on their bill of fare, which means that the actual, physical menu is pretty much covered with white stickers that cover up the stuff that they don't have, and that out of the three or four appetizers listed you would be lucky to find even one--perhaps the tasty pea-flour fritters called polouris.

Roti are usually on hand, sort of Trinidadian burritos containing chicken-potato stew or a handful of curried beef wrapped up in a griddled Trinidadian flatbread--order them spicy, pumped up with the restaurant's fiery habanero-pepper sauce. The curried shrimp, sweet little things stained yellow with annatto, are swell. There are different kinds of pelau , variations on the famous West African rice dish, cooked with pigeon peas or earthy, delicious black-eyed peas, served with heaps of curried meat. Sometimes there is a Trinidadian version of the Jamaican jerk chicken, all backyard-barbecue smokiness and sweet, peppery sauce.

On Saturdays, there is the sparrow special, an enormous plate of food that involves jerky-like strips of salt cod, boiled cassava, sauteed onion, tomato and a certain quantity of dense, chewy dumplings that seem rooted less in the Caribbean than in Mitteleuropa. They balance out the pungency of the cod perhaps more effectively than one might expect. If you've ever wondered what New England boiled dinner might taste like in the tropics, the sparrow special might be for you.

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