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RESTAURANT REVIEW

House Specialties Are Worth Savoring at a Venerable Institution

Dario's margarita is the finest in town and its green corn tamale is tops. The menu is extensive, but a few dishes are best avoided.

February 01, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After 11 years in business, Dario's has earned the right to be called a venerable institution. This Newhall roadhouse serves both Colombian and Mexican dishes in an atmosphere notable for its faded, clubby elegance.

Owner Dario Yepes keeps the place dimly lit--so dim, in fact, that you tend to stumble on your way to the old-fashioned booths upholstered in red vinyl. Once you're seated, the best strategy is to indulge in the Santa Clarita Valley's finest margarita, the perfect companion to the restaurant's hot, oily chips and thick, piquant salsa. It works for me.

That's because Dario's margarita, served in an artfully salted glass that resembles a bowl mounted on a stem, doesn't skimp on either lime juice or tequila. The bartender also makes margaritas flavored with coconut, pineapple or banana, but do not waver. None of those sweet, cloying novelties compares to the original.

The extensive menu has only one page of Colombian dishes, located toward the back--though it does happen to be the only page printed in red ink (the others are in brown). It's a good idea to check the Colombian page first because it lists the two best appetizers.

One is Dario's specialty, made daily: the green corn tamale. This is an oblong of light, sweetened masa flecked with bits of sweet corn, smack in the middle of which is an enormous piece of tender stewed pork. Four of us eagerly divvied up one tamale, and we agreed that a second would have sated our appetites for the evening.

The Colombian-style empanadas--baked turnovers lightly brushed with egg to make them shine--are delightful too, in no small part thanks to the terrific salsa that comes with them. They're filled with a light, spicy mixture of ground meat and potatoes and the idea is to dip them in the vinegary salsa criolla, which also contains garlic, onions and pepper.

The (mostly Mexican) main courses are substantial in themselves and come with either salad (humdrum) or a hearty homemade soup. One evening the soup was sopa de albondigas, something like a hearty minestrone in which the meatballs are spiked with cumin and the chef hasn't sliced and diced the vegetables. Another night I sampled sopa de tortilla, which had a strong family resemblance--it was the same tomato broth and chunky vegetables with some strips of corn tortilla and little heaps of melted cheese standing in for the albondigas.

*

There are fine chiles rellenos, oozing cheese from their puffy egg batter, and the arroz con pollo gives you plenty of chicken. Probably the best entree is chile verde, a chunky, green-tinged pork stew redolent of tomatillos, onions and mild chiles.

However, the pork carnitas are distressingly fatty. Carne Tampiquena--a specialty of the Mexican city Tampico--is usually a grilled steak topped with chile and onions, alongside a crunchy taquito and a mole-topped cheese enchilada. Dario's version, though, is a rather tough piece of meat rolled around ham filling and in turn rolled in bacon, with a good pico de gallo salsa on the side.

I'd stay away from the entrees on the Colombian page of the menu, because they seem a bit dicey. Plato montanero sounds impressive: steak, beans, rice, fried egg, fried plantains, pork cracklings, avocado and arepa, the flying-saucer-shaped corn bread that is Colombia's national dish. Unfortunately, the arepa, somewhat leaden though it is, may be the best thing on the plate. The steak is as tough as a leather glove, the plantains sodden with oil and the pork cracklings (chicharrones) unforgivably greasy.

One more mondo bizarro dish from the Colombian menu is filete de pescado. Here you get a nice piece of yuca (the starchy tropical root also known as cassava), two wedges of fish blanketed in a lemon-yellow sauce, some decent steamed potatoes and a heap of overcooked rice. I'm assuming that the fish is snapper, but frankly, I can't be sure. The oddly perfumed, sweetly spiced cream sauce completely obscures the taste of the fish. I'd never have picked the dish for Colombian--it reminds me of something I once ate in Finland.

Pass on the oily, deep-fried ice cream and deep-fried sopaipillas, fritters served with both home and chocolate sauce. Have another of those fine margaritas for dessert, and just have somebody else drive you home.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

DETAILS

* WHAT: Dario's.

* WHERE: 24533 Newhall Ave., Newhall.

* WHEN: Dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 2-10 p.m. Sunday.

* HOW MUCH: Dinner for two, $15-$26.

* FYI: Full bar. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa. Suggested dishes: tamale, $5.95; empanadas, $2.85 (4); chile verde, $9.25; arroz con pollo, $9.50.

* Call: (805) 255-6868.

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