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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Big as All Texis

August 10, 1995|JONATHAN GOLD

In Los Angeles, the best Thai restaurants have been ultimately unreproduceable, no matter how hard their owners try; all the best Mexican places are the products of single, food-obsessed chefs. Good Salvadoran places though, like decent Chinese noodle shops, tend to clone themselves, and though great swaths of the central city contain as many Salvadoran pupuserias as gas stations, it can seem as if most are branches of only about a dozen or so chains.

The most consistent of the chains is probably Texis, named after a small town in El Salvador and made visually distinctive by the corporate policy of listing practically the entire menu in the window in blocky neon script. Where some Salvadoran cafes can be on the gamy side, Texises gleam like McDonald's franchises. Where some places have, say, a spectacular version of the minced-beef salad salpicon , but stuffed palm flower, pacaya , that is bitter and unpleasant, you won't find a truly bad dish at any Texis. And the soft pupusas , hand-patted, griddle-baked corn cakes stuffed with cheese, pork or the pungent Salvadoran vegetable loroco , are as consistent as anything this side of Pizza Hut.

Most Salvadoran menus are fairly standardized, give or take a stew or two, but Texis goes out of its way to be user-friendly, with hamburgers for Americanized second-generation kids who would rather die than eat a pupusa ; burritos and broiled beef for the Mexican-food crowd and a fiery salsa cruda that would probably be unrecognizable in mild-sauce-loving El Salvador.

But safe and reliable as the various Texises may be, they also manage to have a bit of individual flair, waitresses in spiffy uniforms, goofy decorations, thick hand-patted tortillas shaped a little like flying saucers.

My favorite branch, nestled into an otherwise Korean mini-mall just a block south of the Wilshire Boulevard insurance district, is a deeply eccentric place, with ferns sprouting out of the ceilings, music that veers back and forth between Los Bukis and Whitney Houston and a flashing message board that broadcasts the locations of the newest outposts of the Texis empire. A long wall is covered with a giant wallpaper mural of Vermont woods or something, the kind you find decorating roadside steakhouses in the Midwest, with a morass of jungle vines daubed onto it by an enterprising painter, as well as a palm or two and a crumbling Maya pyramid. Bubbling soft-drink machines, the sort that usually dispense fruit punch or Orange Bang, hold vividly colored tamarind drink and an orangeade-tasting version of chan, almost crunchy with the same pleasantly slimy seeds that make a Chia Pet explode into loveliness.

If you've eaten more than a couple of times at a Salvadoran restaurant, you know exactly what kind of food to expect here: rich yellow chicken soup thickly populated with various squashes; sweet fried bananas served with tart Salvadoran sour cream and a salty fried-bean puree; fluffy soft tamales, cooked in banana leaves and stuffed with stewed chicken.

*

Fried yuca con chicharrones is an exemplary rendition of the classic Central American salad, the tuber crunchy and light, the fried pigskin chewy, draped over a mound of the cabbage slaw called curtido and dressed with a mild tomato sauce. Fried slices of pork come with grilled onion slices and a big scoop of the beans-and-rice dish gallo pinto , spotted rooster, that is good enough by itself to justify ordering the combination. The salpicon --cool, chopped roast beef dressed with citrus and tossed with diced onion and radish--is fine.

You may be better off avoiding a few of the things here: carne guisada is a sturdy, bland beef stew of a sort you may not be nostalgic for, and flattened fried hen that is cooked longer than strictly necessary. But Texis even has food to make certain vegetarians happy: cheese-stuffed green squash battered and fried like chiles rellenos; the pupusas; the aforementioned stuffed pacaya . If pupuserias ever caught on like Taco Bells, you would probably be able to spot a little Texis in there somewhere.

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What to Get

Pupusas, yucca con chicharrones, gallo pinto

Where to Go

Texis No. 2, 698 S. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 387-8890. Open 24 hours, seven days. Cash only. No alcohol. Guarded lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $9-$15. Several other locations in the Downtown, Mid-Wilshire and North Hollywood areas.

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