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VALLEY WEEKEND | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Chinese Food Pairs Well With Flavors From Peru

Fina Estampa also prepares traditional dishes such as boiled potatoes smothered in a creamy cheese sauce.

November 28, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Chinese dominate the restaurant trade in Peru, so a lot of adapted Chinese dishes (chifa) are at home on Peruvian menus. You can experience chifa, and many of Peru's more traditional dishes too, at Fina Estampa in Chatsworth.

This large, boxy place, located where L.A. Gourmet used to be, has a small stage and dance floor --with live Peruvian music on Fridays and Saturdays. The "A" tables are the red vinyl booths toward the front of the restaurant.

But the rest of the seating is on hard-backed chairs at long banquet tables. That's because this is very much a family place. One Sunday evening, I counted more than 30 children with their parents. Maybe this is the South American version of Chuck E. Cheese.

If so, the food is rather grown-up. Peru has both high mountains and a long seacoast, so its cuisine is quite varied. The chief starches, for instance, are potatoes, rice and yuca root. Fina Estampa serves at least one of those with just about everything on the menu.

In the entradas (appetizer) section of the menu, you find the most famous Peruvian dish, ceviche mixto--a big plate of raw marinated snapper, squid, shrimp and octopus, tossed with tomatoes, pickled onions and parsley.

The dish is lemony, pungent with vinegar and delicious. It's the sensible starting point for a meal here, but note that as an appetizer, it easily serves three.

Some appetizers typify chifa. Won ton frito, for instance, is eight crisp, fried won tons with meatier fillings than you'd ever get in a Chinese restaurant. Chancho asado con nabo is chunks of red barbecued Cantonese-style pork, nicely paired with a rather Japanese side of slightly sugary pickled white radish.

Papa rellena, though, is definitely Peruvian. It's a delicious deep-fried cake of mashed potato with a filling of ground beef flavored with sweet spices and olives. Papas a la Huancaina, Peru's second most famous dish, is boiled potatoes smothered in a creamy cheese sauce. Think of it as Peruvian rarebit, keeping in mind that it is also sneakily spicy.

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At least half the chifa menu is either chaufa (chow fun, that is; fried rice) or tallarin (the Italian word tagliarini, used as the generic term for noodles in Peru but in this case meaning pan-fried chow mein). Arroz chaufa especial is a remarkable plate of food--delicately fried rice loaded with chicken, barbecued pork, squid and shrimp. Tallarin saltado de pollo is good old chicken chow mein, basically as you'd find it at your local Cantonese restaurant.

The rest of the Chinese menu is relatively eccentric, and because everything is made to order, make sure the kids bring a Game Boy or coloring book. Don't miss chi-jau-kay, breaded chicken in a rich oyster sauce.

There is also a crossover dish called gallino de tamarindo: chicken stir-fried in a medicinally sweet red sauce dominated by the taste of tamarind.

The Peruvian entrees are exotic in their own right. Cau cau is stewed honeycomb tripe with potatoes in a mint sauce, an unexpected and delicious combination of flavors. Patita con mani tastes like a Thai dish of pork stewed with a peanut sauce but with most of the spices removed.

The most popular main dish might be lomo saltado: sauteed strips of salty beef cooked with tomatoes, served with French fries and boiled rice. My choice would be seco de cabrito, ultra-tender lamb shanks (not goat meat, they told me, despite the name) cooked with cilantro and served with stewed white beans and rice.

I'd come back here any time, but with the knowledge that this kitchen is slow, and service a bit green. Despite the waiters' courtliness, my table had to beg for silverware and extra plates. Our water glasses were never refilled but just replaced one by one.

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If you have the stamina, stick around for a few Peruvian desserts, all of which are based on a thick caramel cream. Pionono looks like a jelly roll, but the filling is caramel cream, not jelly.

Alfajores are rich shortbread sandwiches filled with, yep, you guessed it, caramel cream. You can get your caramel cream just about straight in the Peruvian version of flan, crema volteada.

DETAILS

* WHAT: Fina Estampa.

* WHERE: 21830 Nordhoff St., Chatsworth.

* WHEN: Lunch and dinner 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.

* HOW MUCH: Dinner for two, $24-$35. Suggested dishes: ceviche mixto, $7.50; papas a la Huancaina, $4; chancho asado con nabo, $5; arroz chaufa especial, $8.50; seco de cabrito, $8.

* FYI: Beer and wine only. Parking lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

* CALL: (818) 773-8981.

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