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No Tempest in a Teapot

September 19, 1996|MAX JACOBSON

Ethnic Hurricane comes across like a tropical eddy. Eating here is exotic, but not enough to blow you away.

This cheery little cafe, partly hidden in the West Covina Parkway Plaza, specializes in a flurry of dishes inspired by the cuisines of Japan, Italy, Mexico and other lands. Still, Ethnic Hurricane is as Japanese as most sushi bars in the Southland.

It is spare, bright and modest in here. The room is decorated with framed chiogami, gorgeously patterned swatches of Japanese wrapping paper, and you sit on plastic patio chairs. The friendly Kozo Terajima runs the show, with the help of his wife, Yumiko.

Terajima trained formally as a kappo chef in his native Kyoto and during the mid-'80s, he plied his trade at Kappo Kyara, then one of the most elegant small Japanese restaurants in Little Tokyo.

Kappo are small, savory dishes that the Japanese consume with abandon in pubs, but only a few such dishes--spicy Buffalo wings and fried sweet and sour tofu, for instance--make appearances at Ethnic Hurricane.

Instead, the chef has put together a menu of ethnic foods commonly eaten at lunchtime by the hurry-up Japanese: pastas, curries, gratins and a few fried noodle dishes. The mix is eclectic but unusual only in an American context.

It can also be very, very good. Spicy Buffalo wings are quite like the crispy fried tebasaki chicken wings you'd eat at a Japanese pub, with one major difference: They come dipped in a ruddy Tabasco-based sauce and have quite a kick.

Terajima hasn't lost his delicate touch either, as one discovers while eating mixed mushroom salad, spicy California roll and the eccentric "tofu parmesana." Even those who don't like sushi should enjoy his take on California roll, creamy chunks of ripe avocado, flaky fresh lump crab meat and hot chile powder rolled in vinegared rice and tobiko, the tiny roe of the flying fish.

Mixed mushroom salad is a bargain at $4.25, big enough to share. The greens that go into the salad--baby lettuce, radicchio, frisee, mache, spinach and chervil--are impressive enough on their own. The chef then adds cooked enoki, shiitake and oyster mushrooms and splashes the whole shebang with ponzu, a citrusy soy dressing.

Tofu parmesana is solidly appealing too. Imagine a casserole dish of tofu baked with a rich marinara sauce and a crust of cheese. Surprise: It tastes great, with nearly as much protein as veal and a lot more than eggplant.

From the menu's Over the Border section come dishes like "guacamore" and "furihores"--fractured spellings but dependable versions of guacamole and refried beans (frijoles) respectively. Carne asada at Ethnic Hurricane is a spicy marinated flank steak that Terajima has pounded tortilla-flat and grilled. It's not as tender as it could be but is flavorful accompanied by Mexican-style beans and rice.

Japanese curry is a popular student dish over there, since it is cheap and filling. In Japan, curry means a pasty brown sauce laden with chunks of pork over steamed rice. But Terajima serves his thick, sweet curry with a choice of chicken, beef, shrimp or scallops.

Spaghetti, too, is available in several styles; among them a delicious ragu of minced veal; a spicy tomato sauce studded with ham, onion and zucchini; and the very Japanese pureed plum in butter sauce, garnished with radish sprouts.

Entrees are served with salad, miso soup and a choice of rice or bread. Be aware that marinated Hurricane beef steak is identical to the carne asada, except for different side dishes. Grilled Atlantic salmon is wonderful, a nice-sized piece of fish in a subtly spicy wasabi cream sauce. Pan-fried red snapper comes in a spicy, pungent black vinegar sauce; the chef will ask you how spicy you want it when you order.

Yumiko-san makes the desserts, and they are similar to what you'd get in a Little Tokyo tea room. There are a textbook tiramisu made with ladyfingers and lots of mascarpone cheese and Miss Muffett-sized wedges of chocolate and lemon mousse cake.

What to Get

Buffalo wings, spaghetti in plum butter sauce, mixed mushroom salad, tofu parmesana, grilled Atlantic salmon with wasabi cream sauce.

Where to Go

Ethnic Hurricane, 1034 W. Covina Parkway, West Covina; (818) 338-7856. Open Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Beer and wine. Parking in lot. Cash only. Takeout. Lunch for two, $11 to $15.

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