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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Fast With Ethnic Flavor : The Mexican food is too fine a bargain to remain a secret. Across way, diners can create their own Italian meals.

March 17, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

WOODLAND HILLS — Winnetka Square is twice blessed because of Baja Fresh Mexican Grill and Rasta Pasta Pasta Company. Each puts its own spin on the ever-trenchant phenomenon of ethnic fast food.

A couple of friends in Woodland Hills begged me to keep Baja Fresh a secret. Sorry. Anyway, at this point, it couldn't matter--the place is already packed.

This blossoming company has three Ventura County locations and a branch in Beverly Hills. The specialty is terrific Mexican food at low prices.

Baja Fresh also makes a point of using no microwaves, can openers, Styrofoam, lard or MSG, as the menu proudly tells us. What it doesn't say is that this food tastes really good. A purist might find it somewhat glossy and overly sanitized, lacking in aroma and even soul, but in fact it's honest, clean-tasting fare that appeals to both kid and adult.

The decor is straightforward and bright: the red and green of the Mexican flag, the gleaming white of an open kitchen, a lone potted palm. The crowd inside is young and boisterous. If you find it too noisy, try the outdoor patio, facing traffic on Ventura Boulevard.

As at La Salsa (the fresh-Mex chain which Baja Fresh resembles), one of the drawing cards is a fine self-service salsa bar. Here you get tiny plastic cups of jalapenos, cilantro, fresh chopped onion, smoky brown hot sauce, thick chile verde and mild red salsa. The quality is peerless.

The usual array of burritos and tacos makes up the heart of the menu. Look for the carne asada and pollo , which are extra-lean, good quality charcoal-grilled beef and chicken. I'm a fan of the chicken taquitos --dense deep-fried cylinders with a terrific meaty filling. They make a great snack with the accompanying scoop of the grill's chunky guacamole.

The heartiest thing on the menu is the torta , a Mexican-style sandwich. It's a belly-busting amount of either chicken or steak, plus guacamole, sour cream, lettuce and tomato, all on a mildly sweet toasted roll. The Baja fish tacos use a small breaded filet of fresh snapper. The less interesting shrimp tacos have a minced shrimp and vegetable filling and a bland aftertaste.

The rest is what you'd expect: nachos, enchiladas and quesadillas, all made with the core ingredients, all inexpensive and tasty. I'd never eat anything here without ordering a side of cebollitas --wonderful charbroiled green onions served "Baja style," which means blackened near the tops and served with a handful of lime wedges. And I'd come back just for a side dish of rice, one of the fluffiest, most flavorful Mexican rice dishes you'll taste at a fresh-Mex restaurant.

*

Rasta Pasta Pasta Company is considerably smaller and generally far less crowded than its Mexican opposite number across the parking lot. Well, who cares? Rasta Pasta is a cuter name. The motto here is "Italian, fast, good," and so far I've been impressed. This is a bare-bones place with a white floor and jet-black tables--not what you'd call comfy. Nothing on the menu is more than $4.70, which is highly competitive when you consider that dishes are cooked to order and come with a good sourdough garlic bread.

Most pastas are a bargain-basement $3.45. You create your own dish by mixing and matching from a menu of seven pastas and six sauces. The latter include a good meat sauce made with garlic, onion, basil and oregano, and a light green pesto fragrant with Parmesan cheese. The spinach linguine are thin and well suited to this kitchen's tomato cream sauce. For 50 cents extra, you get a plateful of cheese-filled tortellini.

But oddly, it is the Thai pasta, the least Italian of the menu's dishes, that I like best. It consists of 100% durum semolina spaghetti in a spicy, not-too-sweet Thai peanut sauce, plus a generous portion of boneless chicken white meat.

There are some fine sandwiches too. The messy meatball sandwich is flavorful enough, probably because of the onion and garlic marinara sauce accompaniment. Grilled chicken Caesar sandwich is a novel idea, and they even make a grilled chicken sandwich with pesto, to jump on a trend.

Trends aren't free, though. If you wish, you may add sun-dried tomatoes to your pasta . . . for an extra $1.25. That almost seems like a heady sum in this little place.

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WHERE AND WHEN

Location: Baja Fresh Mexican Grill, 19960 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills.

Suggested dishes: Chicken taquitos , $3.95; torta , $3.95; cebollitas , $1; Baja combo, $6.25.

Hours: Lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

Price: Lunch for two, $7 to $13. No alcohol. Parking in lot. Cash only.

Call: (818) 888-3976.

*

Location: Rasta Pasta Pasta Company, 19948 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills.

Suggested dishes: Create-your-own pasta, $3.45; meatball sandwich, $3.45; Thai pasta, $4.70.

Hours: Lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

Price: Lunch for two, $9 to $12. No alcohol. Parking lot. Cash only.

Call: (818) 592-0250.

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