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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

One Man's Verde

May 02, 1996|JONATHAN GOLD

Centinela Avenue, in that odd stretch just before it swings through Culver City, may be the oldest surviving melting pot on the Westside. It's an amiable polyglot mix of Japanese American, Mexican American and Italian American businesses that dates from right after World War II, when the future housing developments and strip mall centers were still planted in vegetables and this no-man's-land near the future Marina was as remote a part of Los Angeles as most people could imagine. If you squint a little, Centinela can still have the dusty feel of the main street in a small farm town.

Surrounded by some Centinela Avenue junk stores, announced by a long-faded sign and a few hand-scrawled notices, El Indio is the kind of storefront you could drive by for decades without noticing. A college girlfriend of mine lived a couple of blocks from here for a while, and the two of us must have walked past El Indio 50 times on our way to Paco's Tacos or the Japanese-inflected fast-food stand Mago's, but I had no idea the place sold anything but tortillas. El Indio is the quintessential undiscovered Mexican dive, right down to the Cinco de Mayo-themed beer ads on the tables and the handwritten daily specials posted on the walls.

There's nothing in the appearance of the place to indicated that El Indio is the genuine ruby in a cigar box of paste imitations. The first time I wandered in here, I was, frankly, preparing to bolt after a couple of bites. Only a couple of other customers were in the place, and the owner seemed taxed to the limit by the exertion of preparing a small lunch for two.

The tortilla chips were wonderful, though, any fool could tell that right away. They were thick, irregular, tooth-breaking objects with the slightly high taste of fresh-toasted corn. The salsa, made from tomatoes (canned, I would imagine) and lots of fresh chiles and intricately flavored with vinegar and cumin, was a little idiosyncratic but fine. The big tacos of fried barbacoa or gristly grilled beef may not have been up to the best East L.A. standards, but they were overstuffed, made with good tortillas, pleasantly oily.

The best things at El Indio turn out to be dusky, spicy stews somewhat in the New Mexico manner: chile colorado, slightly bitter and sneakily hot, colored sunset orange with dried chiles; steak simmered with chopped onions and ultra-hot fresh peppers; carne adobada, pork steak steeped in spices and vinegar, cooked to an almost spoonable softness, as tender as you can imagine pork to be: terrific.

"I cook whatever I feel like," says the owner, plonking down a bottle of pineapple pop. "Sometimes I use pork in a dish, sometimes beef . . . . It's always different."

One day, the chile verde may be almost like a pork machaca--dry, chewy strips of meat fried hard with onions and shreds of chile, a dish that is all salt and smoke and intense chile heat. The next, it might be beef simmered with gentler chiles to a pillowy softness and served with a fiery, complex green-chile salsa that works its way into the stew like salve into a sore back. Sometimes the broth-steeped rice is fluffy and sharp with garlic; sometimes it's hard-fried and bland. There's just one guy at El Indio--he's cook, proprietor, waiter and tortilla salesman--and his cooking probably varies as much as your own.

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WHERE TO GO

El Indio Deli, 4579 S. Centinela Ave., Los Angeles, (310) 822-8456. Open for lunch and dinner daily. Cash only. Beer and wine. Takeout. Street parking. Lunch for two, food only, $8-$12.

WHAT TO GET

Chile verde, carne adobada, steak picante.

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