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RESTAURANTS

Big Cajun and Philippine Tastes Come in Small Venues

January 20, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Two newly opened pint-sized restaurants, Jack Shrimp and Manila Sunset, couldn't be more different. One specializes in a nifty Louisiana-style shrimp boil with a few surprising twists. The other is making a valiant attempt to introduce Filipino cuisine to central Orange County.

Like Killer Shrimp in Marina del Rey and Studio City, Jack Shrimp serves a spicy bowlful of shrimp and a giant basket of French bread with which to soak up the broth. The family resemblance is no coincidence--Jack Shrimp owner Jack Jasper is the brother of one of the creative forces behind Killer Shrimp. At the Killer Shrimp restaurants, though, there's nothing on the menu but shrimp; at Jack Shrimp you can also get such Cajun fare as jambalaya or a sensationally spicy artichoke.

This modest cafe (it's just a few inside tables and a glass-enclosed patio facing Pacific Coast Highway) is actually the third for Jasper, and the one he hopes will be permanent. You might have seen Jasper's first place on the Balboa peninsula, or the second one on the Newport Beach site that now houses a Caribbean restaurant named Mango.

The concept is simple. Jack shrimp (the dish) consists of eight to 10 huge, plump Gulf shrimp, still in their shells, bobbing around in a rich, piquant red sauce that Jasper simmers from early morning to late afternoon. It's the sauce that gets you hooked, but Jasper hedged when I asked him for the recipe. It's enriched with oil and appears to contain no tomato whatsoever but lots of various peppers and spices.

Personally, I find this dish almost irresistible, spicier and more complex than its L.A. area counterpart. The good French bread comes from Newport's C'Est Si Bon bakery, thickly sliced and served in a huge basket. Jasper will probably come to your table to give you a little friendly advice before you dig in. "Let the shrimp cool," he'll tell you," and they will be a lot easier to peel."

You could start off the meal with a crunchy, lightly dressed Caesar salad, a patrician model that definitely looks as if it's slumming on its plastic plate. The Cajun artichoke is memorable. It's really just a well-steamed artichoke, but it's served with what Jasper calls "Cajunaise," a spicy, pink-tinted cross between remoulade and mayonnaise that makes a great dip. I'm also a fan of the jambalaya, which is made with Louisiana andouille sausage, boneless chicken breast, onions, green peppers and a plateful of rice.

Wash it all down with a bottle of ice cold Dixie beer. For dessert, there is an unctuous rum-flavored pecan pie from the Balboa Dessert Co.

Jack Shrimp is moderately priced. Appetizers are $2 to $3.95. Main dishes are $9.95 to $11.95. Dessert is $3.50.

*

Manila Sunset in Fountain Valley is the seventh for this family-owned Filipino chain, and the first branch in Orange County. It's all yellow inside: chairs, walls, table tops. The only decorations are the odd bit of rattan here and there, the sort of stuff students buy at a Cost Plus when they move into their first apartment.

It may be a tall order getting locals to embrace the exotic menu, which reflects the Philippines' unique blend of Chinese, Spanish and Pacific overtures. But price may help. Incredibly (this is probably the secret of the chain's success), no dish on the menu costs more than $3.

Ease into the Filipino menu with lumpiang Shanghai: dense, crisp, cigar-sized egg rolls with a gently spiced meat filling. Later on, you might want to try lumpiang prito , a fried vegetable roll with a rice paper skin. The filling is celery, garbanzo bean, bean sprouts and diced carrot. Or pancit malabon , stubby little rice noodles topped with boiled shrimp, chopped egg and the special Sunset malabon sauce, which I'd describe as bland and sweet.

Chicken sotonghon is a light, delicately flavored chicken soup with thread-thin transparent noodles made from mung bean flour. Adobo , one of the most popular dishes in the Philippines, is meat (generally pork or chicken, as here) stewed with soy and vinegar. Both the pork and chicken models are fine.

However, I have to express reservations about lechon kawale , which is chunks of fatty fried pork still attached to the porker's skin. It may be a favorite in the islands, where fats are at a premium, but here, the idea feels indulgent. Bopis is going to be an even harder sell. It's a stew made from the heart and spleen of pork, primal enough to make even a hardened food journalist take a deep breath.

But that brings us to the best dish here, the remarkable bibingka , a miracle for $2.25. It's made from galapong (wet rice flour), cheese and egg. The top is lightly dusted with sugar, and the dish faintly resembles a cheese souffle that you'd find in a back-street Paris cafe.

There are drinks like the outre sago at gulaman , containing tear-sized drops of tapioca flour and red food coloring. The best dessert is probably macapuno con hielo , shaved ice with palm sugar and an abundant helping of shredded young coconut.

I'm not going to guarantee that it will be to your taste, but at these prices, who cares? So a big malamat salamat po ("welcome," in Tagalog) to you, and see ya down at the cafe.

Manila Sunset is inexpensive. Nothing on the menu is more than $3.

* JACK SHRIMP

* 2400 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach.

* (714) 650-5577.

* Open daily, 5:50 to 10:30 p.m.

* MasterCard and Visa accepted.

* MANILA SUNSET

* 17870 Newhope St., Fountain Valley.

* (714) 662-1511.

* Open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

* Cash only.

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