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EATS: Restaurant Reviews and News | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Flamenco on the Side

Spanish restaurant's menu offers tapas, grilled meats and paellas.

March 20, 1997|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hola Espan~a, hidden away in a Van Nuys mini-mall, is a traditional Spanish restaurant with a pleasant buzz. Everything is cooked on a huge charcoal grill, where meats barbecue and twin-handled iron paella pans simmer away.

Barcelona, the previous Spanish restaurant in this location, was decorated with wine casks and giant smoked hams hanging from the ceiling, but the new ownership has simplified the room considerably. The only embellishments these days are a few Spanish posters and some attractive Spanish tiles on the wall.

The best time to come is Friday or Saturday evening, when Japanese-born flamenco guitarist Hose Tanaka is featured, along with flamenco dancers. (During the week, the restaurant is generally quiet.) Tanaka has a driving, intense style perfectly suited to piquant, intense Spanish dishes, and the glamorously costumed dancers are exciting.

With all this moody music and dancing, it's a shame you can't so much as get a glass of wine here. You'll have to content yourself with nonalcoholic sangria made with apples, oranges, orange soda and nonalcoholic grape wine. It's quite good, actually--a real thirst-quencher.

A few of the tapas are disappointing, such as champin~ones al ajillo: good garlic butter sauce, boring canned mushrooms. Most of these snacks, though, are quite accomplished.

Take plata de embutidos, a plate positively layered with delicious thinly sliced cold cuts: blood sausage, pork sausage, lomo (like Italian capicollo) and queso manchego, thin strips of salty aged Spanish cheese. Tiny green olives are artfully arranged on top.

Sausage is big here. Spanish pork sausage (chorizo, but nothing like a Mexican chorizo) is available grilled and served on bite-sized pieces of toast. Chorizo al vino, by the way, is slices of the same sausage cooked in red wine. Chorizo de arroz is a blood sausage made with rice and onions. Think of the deep red chistorra as the world's greatest Vienna sausage.

The Spanish tortillas (tor-TEEL-yas) are consistently good. They're something between an omelet and a frittata, fried in olive oil to a puffy, golden brown and cut into wedges. Hola Espan~a serves a mean tortilla de patatas y cebolla, the exact potato and onion frittata you'd find in any bar in Madrid. I'd pass on the tortilla de jamon serrano y queso, mainly because the ham has a soapy aftertaste, but the tortilla de chorizo is just fine, and properly hearty.

Paella Valenciana is probably the best known of all Spanish dishes, but this version is called paella Barcelona, perhaps paying homage to the previous owners. It's a saffrony dish of rice, clams, mussels, swordfish, calamari and chicken, laced with green beans, tomatoes and onions--a fragrant dish that will easily serve three.

Paella de pollo, by contrast, is bland and unappealing. Not only does it lack the seafoods, it tastes as if the saffron and other spices have been left out as well. Incidentally, all paellas are cooked to order; figure at least 30 minutes.

A variety of items from the grill round out the paella selections and most of them are perfectly good, thanks to the judicious use of olive oil, parsley and garlic. Chuleton a la brasa is a meaty T-bone steak, a bargain at only $10.75. When they're available, don't miss the lean, nicely charred lamb chops (chuletas de cordero).

Butifarra con mongetes is a garlicky Catalan sausage, grilled and served with a gummy mound of mashed white beans. Pollo a la brasa is grilled chicken, somewhat overdosed with paprika. All the grilled dishes are served with a simple rice pilaf flecked with red bell pepper. I, for one, wish the kitchen would bring back the terrific fried potatoes that were one of the attractions of the old Barcelona.

The only dessert of note is crema Catalana, a dark yellow creme bru^lee with a cinnamon and orange flavoring. You can also get a split banana in honey, which comes sprayed with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. The banana dessert is a half-hearted effort, one that makes you long for a bit of the flamenco spirit in the kitchen. Do you suppose Tanaka-san can cook?

BE THERE

Hola Espan~a, 14054 Burbank Blvd., Van Nuys. (818) 997-6604. Open 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily. Dinner for two, $20-$35. No alcohol. Parking lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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