YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

RESTAURANT REVIEW : Tropical Hot Spot : The quake hasn't slowed the pace at the colorful Cha Cha Cha in Encino, known for appetizers and rum drinks.

January 28, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

It's the Thursday after the Northridge earthquake, and nothing's stirring on Ventura Boulevard. Encino is as quiet as the house in "The Night Before Christmas."

Here inside Cha Cha Cha, it's a different story. At a table to my right sits actor Will Smith with friends. To our left, we see a woman my wife insists played Jean-Claude Van Damme's girlfriend in "Bloodsport." Just as we are about to dig into our first course, a party of 55 walks in. The party must go on.

The party is always on in Cha Cha Cha, a color-splashed, tropical-themed shack that many consider one of the liveliest and most enjoyable restaurants around. Chef Toribio Prado started the Cha Cha Cha craze in a colorful cafe located on the eastern expanses of Melrose Avenue, eventually opening branches in Encino and Long Beach. Prado is no longer affiliated with this particular Cha Cha Cha, but his influence lingers.

It's not that there haven't been subtle changes. The style of the room can still be described as psychedelic sugar shack, highlighted by a cement floor painted with a pirate's map of the Caribbean, high-backed wooden chairs in finger-paint colors and more than the occasional bit of Caribbean art. But things have been fancied up. There are cloths on the tables in place of butcher paper and pineapples. The waiters sport vests painted like Hawaiian shirts, but they're worn with white shirts and black pants that give an unexpected air of formality.

But what the restaurant serves is as wacky--and appealing--as ever. There are giant rum drinks in silly glasses, garnished with what look like pieces ripped from Carmen Miranda's hats. The appetizers can be entire meals here.

You may think I'm exaggerating, but consider Denny Zane's appetizer platter (named after the current chef): banana boats, crab cakes, jerk pork, black bean tamales and empanadas. You probably have an idea what most of those things are, except perhaps the banana boats. They're essentially slices of rolled, deep-fried plantains, with a meat and vegetable stuffing, embellished by an eccentric pineapple-onion salsa.

As for the rest, the black bean tamales are soft corn masa with a bit of bean filling, served open-face atop their steamed husks. What makes them interesting is the elegant garnish: a grainy tomatillo salsa, a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of golden caviar. The empanadas are tiny chicken dumplings, and the crab cakes--among the best in the city--are crusty and golden brown on the surface and slightly spicy inside.

Cha Cha Cha's crispy jerk pork inspires some controversy. It consists of cubed, fried pork tenderloin enveloped by a piquant Jamaican sauce based on vinegar, thyme, ginger and a healthy dose of hot peppers. Some friends argue that the meat gets tough and stringy after it has been fried. I think the dish is nothing short of astonishing.

Some of the salads, too, such as jardin tropical (fresh greens tossed with a pineapple vinaigrette) and barbecue salad (grilled vegetables in a lighter vinaigrette), could make good light suppers in themselves. The mambo gumbo is a great thick soup of okra, shredded chicken and spices.

The only thing I quibble with on this menu is the baked artichoke. It's overcooked to the point of being custardy.

All this means is that you'd better come extra-hungry if you plan on making it past the appetizers. But it's worth it. Heading the entree list is Cha Cha Cha's famous jerk chicken, a plump chicken breast cooked in the same spicy sauce as the jerk pork. Roast pollo a la naranja reminds you of any good Cuban roast chicken (though if you want that, you can get it a lot cheaper at Versailles down the street).

I'm a fan of the camarones negros , jumbo shrimp in a dark, spicy sauce served over fragrant saffron rice. The chef sometimes even makes a festive paella , chock full of sea bass, sausage, chicken, shrimps, clams and mussels. It's pricey at $22, but the dish is more than enough for two.

The kitchen turns out what has to be the best banana cream pie in the Valley, a rich, gooey suspension of bananas and vanilla custard. The ice cream sandwich, a coconut macadamia nut cookie wrapped around vanilla bean ice cream, comes cut into six pieces. We step back out onto Ventura Boulevard after dessert. Amazing. Outside, there's still not a creature stirring.

Where and When

Location: Cha Cha Cha, 17499 Ventura Blvd., Encino.

Suggested Dishes: Denny Zane's appetizer platter, $18; mambo gumbo, $5; roasted garlic pizza, $7; camarones negros , $16.

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 4:30-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 4:30-midnight Friday-Saturday; brunch 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Sunday.

Price: Dinner for two, $28-$50. Full bar. Complimentary valet parking. All major cards.

Call: (818) 789-3600.

Los Angeles Times Articles