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KEEN ON GREEN : Some of the Freshest Food Ideas Are Made in This Shade (and There's Not a Shamrock in the Bunch)

March 16, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobsen is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County Edition

St. Paddy's Day may be Friday, but I've forsworn green corned beef, green beer, green bagels and any other faux Irish food this particular holiday weekend.

That doesn't mean I won't be hankering for anything shaded green. This most pleasing, most appetizing of colors is more often than not what breathes life into a drab meal. Why else would tables the world over brighten dishes of brown food with sprigs of fresh herbs such as parsley, dill and mint? And why else would mint-scented gums and mouthwashes be the popular choice for sweetening our collective breath?

"Eat your vegetables" is a well-traveled parent's mantra; we know full well that green vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber. Greens is the name of one of my favorite restaurants, a Tassajara Zen vegetarian establishment at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Green is associated with money, health, youth--as in the expression, "still a little green." In fact, most of us couldn't do without a little green on the table. Luckily, we don't have to.

Salad is the first thing that springs to mind when green is mentioned in the context of eating. But you probably have that covered on your own. What's more intriguing is to explore the world of green foods through dishes not immediately associated with the color. These dishes are as green in their character as a plate of spinach leaves before the hot bacon dressing.

So here is a menu of greenery that even Kermit can love, because I'm leaving frog legs to another story. Try not to go overboard with these dishes, because many are deceptively rich. And excess is bound to make even the hardiest feel a little, er, green.

Chile Verde

You can always tell a great Mexican restaurant from the chile sauces. Red, green or deep brown, sauces should have plenty of smoke and fire but no more than a glint of bitterness.

Such are the sauces at La Perlita, Santa Ana's longstanding Mexican superstar, whose name means "the little pearl." There's an abundance of green in any Mexican restaurant, from guacamole to the shredded cabbage and lettuce that fills out a plate. But the green of glory at La Perlita is chile verde, a green-tinted dish that is all stewed pork and a delectable tomatillo and green chile sauce.

This most grandmotherly of Mexican dishes is prepared Chihuahua style, meaning the pork has been cut into uniform-size chunks, in a grainy sauce flavored with dry spices. Owner Humberto Huerta hails from that northern Mexican state, and his narrow restaurant--with its live guitar music, dusky ambience and homey cooking--is about as authentic as it gets. Ask for a plate of jalapenos if you really want to spice things up. The peppers have a dull, almost translucent green color, but they liven up a dish as well as more colorful condiments.

La Perlita, 1307 S. Main St., Santa Ana. (714) 543-9033. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, and 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Chile verde, $6.75.

Saag and Makki Roti

When most Indian restaurants refer to saag on their menus, they are taking advantage of the common American ignorance of Hindi. In India, saag is the cooked version of greens from the mustard plant, and in north India, the vegetable is traditionally pureed with spices and eaten with a corn flour flat bread called makki roti . Nearly every one of our Indian restaurants eschews the mustard green, substituting the more familiar spinach.

Maharaja in Orange is different. This charming, artfully designed restaurant is unafraid to serve the slightly bitter, dark green vegetable just as it is done in dhabas (roadside cafes) all over the Punjab and Uttar Pradesh states of India. Maharaja's saag is finely pureed, redolent of ginger, cumin and other spices. It comes hot, in a metal dish, and you spoon it up onto the wedges of roti to eat by hand. As you leave the restaurant, you should not be surprised to discover telltale green stains on the tips of your fingers.

Maharaja, 421 N. Tustin Ave., Orange. (714) 633-7252. Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Saag and makki roti, $8.95.

Fried Green Tomatoes

After the movie of the same name came out, many Southland restaurants jumped on the bandwagon and began serving fried green tomatoes, a Southern staple previously unseen in the Western states. Three years later, the dish has virtually vanished from these parts.

At least Johnny Reb's Southern Smokehouse has no intention of removing the dish from its menu, and for that we can all be thankful. This Long Beach roadhouse has the best Southern-style cooking around. It is well worth a spin across the county line.

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