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VALLEY WEEKEND | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Homey Diner Caters to Hearty Cajun Appetites

Les Sisters serves up nicely spiced helpings of gumbo, boudin sausage and chicken jambalaya.

February 22, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Restraint is next to impossible at Les Sisters, the Valley's best Cajun, Creole and down-home restaurant.

This Chatsworth temple of soul, now in its 10th year, has acquired a degree of celebrity, and there are attractively printed paper place mats on every table recounting how the place got started.

But it remains a bare-bones cafe. You still walk through the kitchen, past stacks of mahogany-colored barbecue chicken and reddish-brown beef ribs, to wash the gumbo stains off your hands after a blowout meal.

And I dare anyone to leave this restaurant hungry. I personally can't eat here without remembering that somebody once described Paul Prudhomme by asking us to imagine that Luciano Pavarotti had swallowed Dom DeLuise.

At a recent meal, I ordered the restaurant's lemonade to wash down a meal, mainly because it looks so great served in a Mason jar. It turned out to be sour and watery, and made me wonder whether the restaurant was slipping. This fear was soon put to rest, though; except for a disappointingly sweet barbecue sauce, the dishes are as irresistible as ever. (And you can always order Barq's Root Beer instead of that lemonade.)

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Kick off a feast here with a basket of Cajun popcorn: sweet, crunchy pieces of crayfish meat battered and deep fried, served with a nicely spiced cocktail sauce. Amazingly, the waitress may ask whether you mind that the dish is made with crayfish, rather than shrimp. (That's the culinary equivalent of being asked whether you'd mind being given a few days off with pay.)

The file gumbo--thickened with a powder made from sassafras leaf and thyme--is impressive for its rich assemblage of ingredients. Pieces of fish, chicken and sausage lurk near the top, shrimp, rice and maybe even a mussel or two toward the bottom.

If, like me, you have a fat-seeking gene, you may want to weigh down an order of gumbo with some hush puppies. These golden, golf-ball-size corn fritters are deep fried and would naturally hush any hungry puppy. A honey dipping sauce accompanies them.

On the specials board, I recommend the boudin sausage. It's not a blood sausage, as it can be in Cajun country, but a mildly spiced meat and rice sausage served browned to a crisp.

Equally good is the crawfish etouffee, which must be made with two dozen of the tiny crustaceans, blended with minced peppers and piled up on heaps of yellow rice. Both dishes are made to be eaten with a hot pepper sauce called Louisiana Gold, tiny vials of which are found on every table.

The menu's best main dish is chicken jambalaya, a seductively spiced combination of shrimp, ham, sausage, rice and peppers. It has a unique flavor, and the owners still bristle when you ask them the secret.

Soul food and Southern barbecue dishes are popular with the customers here, but in general, the fixin's outshine the meats. The collard greens and creamy slaw, for instance, are both wonderful, and so are the molasses-rich candied yams. (Beware the macaroni and cheese, though. It is made with a touch of Tabasco and an unpalatable processed cheese.)

Chef Kevin Huling smokes his meats with hickory and slathers them with a dark red sauce that, it seems to me, used to be spicier. The barbecued chicken--as smoky a bird as the law allows--is definitely better without sauce. The beef ribs are impressive in size, but the meat tends to be tough.

Baby back ribs are a better choice (certainly the most tender meat here), and the regular pork ribs are just fine.

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You can also order chicken smothered--it will be two huge, boneless breasts with a fluffy breading to mop up a thick brown gravy--or in the generic but appealing Southern fried format, heavily breaded.

If you survive to dessert, Clara's peach cobbler is a cloying pastry (about 75% percent crust) punctuated with spiced fruit. The sweet potato pie is a buttery wedge of pie crust with a fluffy pureed filling featuring grace notes of nutmeg.

Best of all is buttermilk pie, light, rich and achingly sweet, easily the homiest of the three. If you can resist this one, chances are almost 100% you'll never be mistaken for Paul Prudhomme.

DETAILS

* WHAT: Les Sisters.

* WHERE: 21818 Devonshire St., Chatsworth.

* HOURS: Lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; dinner 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

* SUGGESTED DISHES: Cajun popcorn, $5.75; chicken jambalaya, 9.95; file gumbo, $10.95; fixin's, $1.50-$3, buttermilk pie, $2.95.

* PRICE: Dinner for two, $15-$30. No alcohol. Street parking. Visa and MasterCard accepted.

* CALL: (818) 998-0755.

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