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RESTAURANT REVIEW : A Rare Taste of 'Fresh-Mex' : The surprising flavors at Chevys make the chain a better choice than most places in Mexico.

January 14, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

Chevys is one of our newer Mexican restaurant chains--the specialty is the increasingly popular "fresh-Mex" style of cooking. There are more than 30 Chevys, mostly in Northern California. I just returned from a short visit to Mexico, so I thought it would be interesting to eat at a Chevys before the memories of my trip faded.

Guess what? I liked it more than most of the places where I ate in Mexico (except for a few beachfront taco stands where the specialty was fresh dorado in a hot tortilla).

The Encino branch is distinguished by a giant tortilla-maker called El Machino and a stack of empty Corona beer boxes that reach halfway to the ceiling. So it's a bit contrived; everything works so well it all ends up looking pleasant.

The dining area is vast, like a warehouse, with exposed ceiling ducts visible from all but a few tables out on an enclosed patio. The tables are covered with pastel oilcloths and giant, weirdly lifeless tropical plants are spaced throughout the dining areas. The de rigueur Mexican decorations--serapes, guitars, driftwood and whatnot--are present, too, lest we forget where we are. It all strikes you as, well, corporate maneuvering, concept traded in for soul. Until the food comes.

Actually, the menu tips you off first. Read it and you learn, for instance, that all flour tortillas are served within three minutes of baking (El Machino, for your information, puts out 900 tortillas every 53 minutes), the salsas are blended hourly, the meats are never frozen and the only cans in the kitchen contain olive oil.

As soon as you're seated, you'll get a basket of hot, fresh chips with terrific charred tomato salsa, with a subtle and smoky flavor offset by onions and jalapenos. It's truly hard to stop eating it. One of my friends got talked into trying the prickly pear margarita, so now we all know what it feels like to get a buzz off cactus. In spite of the Corona boxes, the beer of choice here seems to be Pacifico, a darker, somewhat richer brew sold up and down the Mexican Riviera.

You may want to begin with something light. The tamales, stuffed with pork or chicken, are handmade every morning in the kitchen. They come three to an order, in their husks, and are surprisingly light. Ceviche is made with whitefish marinated in lime juice and onion, and comes in a parfait glass, like a child's ice cream soda.

I like the fact that Chevys gives you a choice of three different beans to accompany your entree. One is the traditional refried beans, a wet version that must have a good deal of canola oil in the recipe. (All fried items here are cooked in cholesterol-free canola oil.) The vegetarian black beans are better, topped with just a dab of chopped tomato and, upon request, a spoonful of sour cream. But I prefer the beans a la charra , rendered smoky by a full-flavored minced ham. They're filling, but they round out many of these dishes nicely.

You may be surprised by the choices. This is not a simple burrito-enchilada menu; you'll find quail, trout and deviled shrimp on it. The quail, two to an order, are mesquite-grilled and spiced quite mildly (pep them up, if you like, with the restaurant's green tomatillo sauce). The trout is generic but reasonably tasty, split and charred across the top.

Camarones diablo--sauteed shrimp--are cooked with more garlic than chili, so they're really garlic shrimp, not diabolical shrimp. The only letdown is the fajitas. Yes, the meat (pork or beef) is good, but there aren't enough vegetables. Our pork came in big meaty chunks with a reddish glaze. The garnish--an onion ring, a slice of green pepper and a slice of red tomato--wasn't enough.

Desserts are a little more creative here than in most Mexican restaurants. The best one is something called dirt cake, a fudge brownie crammed into a ramekin, layered with vanilla ice cream and topped with an inch of crumbled Oreo cookies. Sopaipillas are fresh fried flour tortillas dusted with cinnamon and drenched with honey; they remind me of a Greek dessert. There are also the more traditional desserts, fresh fruit empanadas (turnovers) flan and ice creams.

I was kinda hoping for a fish taco, but hey, you can't have everything.

Where and When

Location: Chevys, 16705 Ventura Blvd., Encino.

Suggested dishes: tamales, $4.95; mesquite grilled quail, $10.95; camarones diablo , $12.95; dirt cake, $2.95.

Hours: Lunch and dinner 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

Price: Dinner for two, $16-$30. Full bar. Complimentary valet parking. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

Call: (818) 385-1905.

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