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EATS: Restaurant Reviews and News | COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

From Spain, With Saffron

Glendale Boulevard eatery has its L.A. influences, but its heart (tapas and tortillas) is very authentic.

January 01, 1998|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

By Allesandro Street, Glendale Boulevard is teeth-gnashing desperate to get onto the Glendale Freeway. At this last moment, with freedom just in sight, not a whole lot of traffic stops at the little corner mall.

Of course, there's not much there. Just a market, a dentist, a video store and the blazing yellow Restaurant Spain.

Restaurant Spain (or Restaurant Espan~a, as they answer the phone) is a homey little place where Mama runs the counter and baby sister waits the tables, but it's blazing yellow on the inside, too, and ostentatiously Spanish. A gaunt, purplish-red country ham (jamon serrano) stands next to the cash register in a special rig for cutting thin slices off it, prosciutto fashion. A deli case for Spanish ham, cheese and sausage adjoins shelves of olives and canned seafood, to say nothing of Spanish chocolates and marzipans. There's even a table of neatly arranged travel brochures for various Spanish cities.

Now, in our town, we have no such thing as a Spanish neighborhood, and Spanish food is only a hazy vision of gazpacho and paella for most people. Whatever Restaurant Spain's original vision of itself was (at one time it made pizzas with Spanish-type toppings like tuna), these days it mostly seems to move mass quantities of bargain-priced takeout roast chicken, red-orange with paprika. There's even a handwritten sign advertising shrimp ranchero style.

But its heart is in Spain. As soon as you sit down, you get a little dish of green olives with a sharp jolt of crushed garlic. The menu starts with 17 tapas, ranging from jamon serrano (a packaged variety from Spain, not as salty and dry as slices from the ham by the register would be, but still more like prosciutto than ordinary ham) to a smaller version of the entree albondigas al ajillo (meatballs in a slightly garlicky tomato sauce), including the rice and salad.

If you only order one tapa, get the embutidos variados, a sort of greatest hits compilation. It includes slices of jamon serrano and queso manchego (an ivory-colored cheese like a cross between Jack and Swiss), samples of a couple of chorizos (think paprika-heavy salami or pepperoni; they're nothing at all like the Mexican sausage of the same name) and a surprisingly light potato salad (ensalada rusa) in a creamy sauce, mixed with peas and chunks of tomato with about four tiny beet slices arranged on top. All these items can be ordered as tapas on their own, and the ensalada rusa also accompanies the tasty, crumbly chicken croquettes (croquetas de pollo).

The garlic meatballs are also pleasant, served with saffron rice and salad, and chorizo al vino tinto makes a great change of pace--dense little pepperoni-like sausages poached in sweetish red wine with cinnamon sticks. But squid in its ink will not be to every taste, and some tapas are on the bland side, such as pulpo a la gallega (baby octopus with potatoes) and pescaditos a la malaguen~a. Though the latter is beautifully fried in just a dusting of flour, most people will probably want to squeeze plenty of lemon juice on it.

If you're going to call yourself Restaurant Spain, you have to serve tortillas, the Spanish equivalent of a frittata. Beside the usual version of potato slices punctuated with sweet bits of onion, there are sausage, shrimp and ham and cheese versions. This likable, filling egg dish seems to have caught on with the local clientele--there's usually a ready-to-go chorizo tortilla under a hot lamp at the counter.

The place makes mouth-filling, aromatic paellas; they don't spare the saffron. There are three versions--seafood (prawns, mussels and Manila clams), chicken and vegetarian--but sometimes the kitchen will feel like coming up with a special, such as seafood, chicken and chorizo. Paellas are cooked to order in the traditional round-bottomed pan, and one will serve two people, maybe three.

There are also some straightforward meat dishes, such as pork chops with sliced potatoes, which manage to have the same brusque, passionate quality as all Spanish food. The only dessert I've ever encountered here is flan; not much caramel sauce but a nice rich texture if you don't try to eat the skin.

One other good thing here is the bocadillos, light, European-style sandwiches that emphasize fresh, crusty bread rather than the filling, which is likely to be something like sliced tomatoes and pepperoni-like sausage. Once in a while, one of those commuters desperate to get on the freeway might want to stop off and bag a bocadillo to go.

BE THERE

Restaurant Spain, 1866 Glendale Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 667-9045; fax 667-2683. Open 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Monday. Beer and wine. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$44.

What to Order: embutidos variados, chorizo al vino tinto, croquetas de pollo, ensalada rusa, tortilla papa y cebolla, paella de pollo, paella del mar, flan.

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