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WORLD CUP USA '94 : COMMENTARY : Pass the Premiat; Like it or not, They're the Toast of this Town

July 03, 1994|NORMAN CHAD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Suddenly, the capital of Romania is Los Angeles. Romania 3, Colombia 1, at the Rose Bowl; Romania 1, United States 0, at the Rose Bowl. Now it's Romania-Argentina at the Rose Bowl today--and with a victory, it's on to the quarterfinals at Stanford, and a victory there and Romania will be back in Pasadena for the semifinals and World Cup final.

This is our team.

Petrescu. Popescu. Lupescu. Munteanu. Dumitrescu. Hagi. Belodedici. (Hey, it's got to be Vanna White's favorite team.)

So I figured somewhere in this Carpathian-crazed town, there were Romanian discos, Romanian bookstores, Romanian clothiers, Romanian boutiques, Romanian florists.

I figured wrong.

Little Bucharest, this ain't.

About 24 million people live in Romania, and most of them have decided not to relocate to Los Angeles. Who can blame them? Only 2% of Romanians own an automobile, only 15% own a TV set. (Corresponding rates for L.A.: 106% and 117%.) If you move here, you can't even get out of LAX without a car and you can't even find work without a TV script.

There are just 20,000 residents of Romanian descent in the Southland, with the greatest concentration in Hollywood.

I went looking for them.

There is a Romanian Orthodox Church in Glendale, but they wouldn't convert me by game time.

There is world-famous Hollywood Boulevard, which is sort of Transylvania East. (Believe you me, ladies and gentlemen, if you stand on the corner of Hollywood and Highland long enough, you're bound to see folks dressed like Dracula.)

There is Greco's New York Pizzeria, a chain of L.A. pizzerias owned by the cousin of Romanian midfielder Gheorghe Hagi. I went to one of the two Greco's on Hollywood Boulevard and asked for Haji's cousin. The pizza man responded, "Haji who?" (For this I put a quarter in the meter?)

Alas, there is Mignon's Romanian restaurant on Vine in Hollywood.

I went there Wednesday night for dinner, but was turned away--Mignon's had just hosted the Romanian soccer team and 100 of its supporters, who came by for a homesick meal before going off to Universal Studios. (Tcch. Tourists. Like the "Back to the Future" ride is any better than going down the Danube in a raft.) There would be no silverware--or service--for at least an hour, so I was advised to come back later.

I returned Thursday for lunch and talked with co-owner Daniel Popescu, 33. Popescu's family had fled Communism in Romania in 1976 and asked for political asylum here. His family opened the restaurant in 1984, and Popescu and partner Mihai Istrate bought it from Popescu's aunt in 1992.

Before I ordered, I asked Popescu to characterize Romanian food. "We use a lot of garlic, some paprika," he said. "It's mostly beef, pork and chicken. It is a mixture of all the many people who have occupied Romania over the years--there are Arabic influences, Hungarian influences, Austrian and German influences."

I then briefly considered the ciorba de burta (beef tripe soup) or the cashcaval pane (breaded cheese) or the mamaliguta cu brinza si smintina (hot corn meal with sour cream and feta cheese), but I settled for the mititei (skinless sausage) and french fries (french fries). Along with the matzo ball soup that came before the dish, it was a delicious bargain at $5.25.

I passed on dessert but asked the waitress about coffee.

"We have regular and decaf--and Romanian coffee."

"Romanian coffee?"

"It's like Turkish coffee," she said. "It's kind of strong."

Yeah, and Machiavelli was kind of Machiavellian. I took one sip of this coffee and jolted back to childbirth--it cleared my sinuses, cleared up my skin and wiped out five years of a bad marriage.

After leaving Mignon's, I was determined to find other Romanian delicacies to perhaps create my own Romanian feast at home. But Popescu had told me that would be difficult, that several Romanian restaurants and markets had closed in recent years.

First I ventured to Chalet Gourmet on Sunset Boulevard. It had food items from more than 20 countries--among them Greece, Portugal, Hungary, Jamaica, Morocco, even Texas ("fajitas marinade")--but nothing from Romania. Chalet Gourmet did carry one Romanian wine: Premiat Pinot Noir, a soft and velvety red wine from the Dealul Mare region ("Chill Before Serving"). I grabbed it at $4.99.

I then made my way to Bucharest Grocery on Hollywood Boulevard, co-owned by Turkish emigres Diran Mutafyan and Kevoric Gulbenkian. They had bought the market from its original Romanian owner 20 years ago, and though they stocked smoked fish and homemade eggplant and Bulgarian and Hungarian cheeses, they, too, carried no food items from Romania. In fact, it was a bit disappointing to see Pringles and Nestle's Quik on the shelves.

(Incidentally, I asked Mutafyan, 67, if he had been watching the World Cup. He answered matter-of-factly, "Of course," and looked at me in a way as if to indicate that was the single stupidest question he had ever been asked. You know, I guess it was.)

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