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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Accent on Bargain : Mi Casita serves a bounty of inexpensive Salvadoran cuisine, from huge meat dishes to banana fritters.

August 26, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

VAN NUYS — Eleven singles for four quarters. That's just one of the bargains at Mi Casita Salvadorena. The others, you eat.

First bargain first: Take those quarters and unleash a flood of Alvaro Torres or Los Tigres del Norte from the restaurant's old-fashioned Wurlitzer jukebox. Of course, chances are you won't have to. One of the other customers will probably have beaten you to the punch.

Dozens of Salvadoran cafes have opened in standard-issue storefronts since the flood of immigrants from El Salvador in the '80s, but Mi Casita Salvadorena breaks the mold. The location is a dreary, oversized Van Nuys roadhouse decorated in vestiges of a bygone roadhouse era: faded brown vinyl banquettes, wooden captain's chairs that have as much to do with Central America as tortillas with Cape Cod, a Lite beer sign complete with attached longhorns.

Lean over the front counter, though, and you can watch a team of female cooks unhurriedly kneading, patting and grilling pupusas , the Salvadoran national snack.

No matter how Mexican individual Salvadoran dishes may look, this basically tropical cuisine is no more than a distant cousin of Mexico's. Salvadoran food tends to be sweeter and milder, for one thing. Take tamales de elote , stuffed with shredded chicken and chopped olives; they're softer and much sweeter than Mexican tamales.

It's true that rice, beans and tortillas are eaten with gusto in Mexico and El Salvador, but even that similarity is deceptive. Salvadoran tortillas are thick corn patties, more like johnnycakes than something you'd use to make a taco. Rice becomes a gentle, crunchy pilaf flavored with chicken broth, celery and carrots.

Those pupusas the cooks are making somewhat resemble Mexican sopes , both snacks being based on cornmeal masa , but pupusas are far more complex. Pupusa de queso con loroco , for instance, calls for white cheese and loroco , a dried flower bud with a taste some liken to asparagus (personally, I don't see the resemblance). The cooks mix bits of loroco with the cheese, stuff the mixture into the masa , form it into a thick disk and finish the thing up on a hot grill.

Another popular pupusa is revueltas . For that specialty, the cheese is mixed with crunchy pork cracklings ( chicharrones ). All pupusas come with curtido , a vinegary cabbage salad that could pass for coleslaw.

Meat dishes are quite popular in this cuisine. Salpicon Salvadoreno is finely minced beef cooked with onion, chiles and other vegetables, typically eaten with rice and beans.

This kitchen also prepares some Gargantuan meat dishes that will feed a crowd, especially with those thick Salvadoran tortillas. Anyone with more than a little time on his hands ought to give one a try.

Parrillada Salvadorena is one of them: a one-pound Spencer steak, marinated and charcoal-grilled until the outside of the meat is a dark crust. Parrillada costilla de puerco is an entire slab of lean pork ribs, basted with a deep red salsa. The piece de resistance has to be gallina entera , a whole chicken served in two courses that is pricey by this restaurant's standards: $25. The first course is grilled boneless chicken, skin on. The second course is a home-style soup, full of those missing bones.

The restaurant offers many dishes unique to the Salvadoran repertoire. Rellenos de guisquil is a meat-stuffed yellow squash, first cousin to the stuffed vegetables you find in, say, any Armenian restaurant. Cena de pavo consists of delicious, boneless hunks of baked turkey brushed with a mild red sauce. Empanadas de platanos are sugar-dusted banana fritters, wonderful for dessert.

The unusual chilate con nuegados y dulce de platanos makes a great breakfast. Chilate is a pasty, spicy gravy that Salvadorans spoon over stewed bananas (dulce de platanos). Nuegados are fried dough balls in a sugary syrup, making this dish the Central American equivalent of banana pancakes.

Beverages include fruity, sweet-sour tamarindo , made from tamarind, and horchata , a sweet, cinnamon-flavored drink made from boiled rice. Served ice cold, both are quite refreshing on a hot summer day. You'll get yours in a paper cup. No frills here.

The one complaint I have about Mi Casita Salvadorena is the perfunctory service. Questions about ingredients, for instance, may be greeted with a stony shrug. But don't even think about letting those objections deter you from giving this place a try.

Besides, if you don't like the service or even the food, you can always get up and dance.

WHERE AND WHEN

What: Mi Casita Salvadorena.

Location: 14860 Vanowen St., Van Nuys.

Suggested Dishes: Pupusas de queso con loroco , $1.75; tamales de pollo , $1.90; salpicon Salvadoreno , $7.20; cena de pavo , $7.85; empanadas de platanos , $4.35.

Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

Price: Dinner for two, $9 to $25. Beer and wine only. Parking lot. Cash only.

Call: (818) 988-6171.

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