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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Quesadilla Sera, Sera

February 03, 1994|JONATHAN GOLD

One of the most intriguingly mixed neighborhoods in Los Angeles is that bit of Beverly Boulevard stretching west a few blocks from Vermont, where Koreatown and the Filipino neighborhood to the east crash headlong into the giant Central American community that stretches up into Hollywood.

I first hung out in the neighborhood, paused to map it and to understand its rhythms, for a cultural-geography paper my freshman year at UCLA, and though most of the actual businesses have changed, the essential tune has not. It's not a bad place for a Saturday afternoon food stroll, punctuated perhaps by a grilled Thai lemon-grass sausage from the pushcart in the parking lot of the Cathay supermarket, a cheese-stuffed pupusa from the Salvadoran place called Usulateco, an Indonesian coffee-avocado smoothie from the restaurant Agung, a super-caffeinated Cuban soft drink from the pan-Latin El Lechero market.

If you spend enough time around here, you are bound to discover the Guatemalteca Bakery, which more or less seems to be the locus of the large Guatemalan community in central Los Angeles. On the sidewalk in front, street vendors sell fuzzy stuffed apes and banda cassettes, homemade tamales and hot ears of corn. On Sundays and before holidays, the line at Guatemalteca often twists through the bakery, out onto the sidewalk and most of the way down the block, because Guatemalteca's soft white roll, perujo , is about the best Central American bread you can find. Even on a midweek afternoon, people line up for the rolls and cakes and super-sweet custard-filled pastries, along with maybe a bottle of hot sauce and a pound of herbed Guatemalan sausage links, longanizas .

My favorite thing to buy here is a sort of oblong, cream-cheese-enriched Guatemalan poundcake, quesadilla , which is sweet, rich and even better when you take it home and heat it up for breakfast. For a long time, Guatemalteca quesadillas were among my standard contributions to potluck dinners, and over the years I've experimented with quesadilla strawberry shortcake, toasted quesadillas with ice cream, and rum-soaked quesadilla bread pudding.

Next to the bakery, Guatemalteca runs a quick-service restaurant specializing in $4 steam-table lunches and the Guatemalan antojito -like snacks called chapines . The plate lunches here are pretty much what you might expect, the chunky, tart beef stew carne guisada and the tomato-y shredded-beef stew hilacha , intensely flavored longaniza sausages in tomato sauce that are better the fresher they are from the grill.

Sometimes the terminology can be confusing here: What the restaurant calls a tostada , you'll call a fried tortilla smeared with beans, and what you might recognize as a tostada--a crisp tortilla heaped with beans, cream, and a bright-purple mixture of beets and beet-stained cabbage--Guatemalans call an enchilada . An enchilada might be the essential Guatemalteca snack. Tamales are the soft, airy kind, steamed in banana leaves, fluffed out with lard, filled with chunks of chile-stewed pork, and the flavor is terrific, but the texture might be a bit off-putting if you're used to the firmer Mexican tamales.

The fairly bland steam-table food may sometimes remind you of what a Woolworth's lunch counter might serve in Guatemala City, but I fairly often find myself stopping in here for a quick bite: fried plantains with black beans and thick Guatemalan cream, a delicious, simple sandwich of black beans on a roll, rellenitos , which is essentially sweet fried plantains wrapped around salty black beans. They like black beans here, and they know how to use them.

* Guatemalteca Bakery 4032 W. Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 382-9451. Open daily. Cash only. No alcohol. Street parking. Takeout. Lunch for two, $8.

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