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EATS: in and around the Valley | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Sensory Overload

Noisy Cha Cha Cha Encino is the wackiest restaurant in the Valley.

January 15, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Cha Cha Cha Encino is the wackiest-looking restaurant in the Valley. Picture a psychedelic sugar shack with a pirate's map of the Caribbean painted on the stone floor. The walls are almost completely covered with blindingly colorful paintings by an artist named Barbara Mendez, in a style like a cross between Edvard Munch and J. Fred Muggs. Faded green wrought-iron chandeliers, which could have come from a Munsters rerun, hang down from the ceiling like giant cobwebs.

The place is an outgrowth, of course, of the original Cha Cha Cha, which was opened about 10 years ago by Cuban-born chef Toribio Prado in an obscure east Hollywood location. Prado is no longer an owner of this particular Cha Cha Cha, but his considerable influence remains. Chefs who trained under him still do the cooking here.

This is a noisy sort of wacky restaurant, and you certainly don't come here to be comfortable. You sit on awkward high-backed wooden chairs--brightly painted red, yellow, green and blue, of course.

The food and drink can also be wacky. Everybody orders big frosty glasses of silly rum drinks, such as the mango margarita, which is slushy and delicious, despite its toxic orange color.

The best appetizer deal, if you're dining in a group, is the special Cha Cha Cha platter, an enormous plate filled with the restaurant's most popular appetizers: crab cakes, jerk pork, black bean tamales, "banana boats" and tiny, delicate chicken empanadas. Delicate isn't exactly how I'd describe most of these items, which can also be ordered individually; on the whole, they're devilishly filling.

The banana boats are deep-fried plantains hollowed out and given a spicy stuffing of minced meat and vegetables. They're starchy, but I like them, and the black bean tamales, too. The latter are served with a grainy tomatillo salsa, a sprinkling of golden caviar and just a bit too much sour cream.

Now you've worked up to the crab cakes, wonderful discs of pure back-fin crab meat, golden brown on the surface and slightly spicy inside. The heaviest thing on the platter is the crispy jerk pork, delicious cubes of deep-fried pork tenderloin in a thick vinegary-spicy crust.

The soups, salads and pizzas are all dependable. To take two soups, the spicy corn chowder is full of corn, though its sweetness can be a little cloying, and the catchily named mambo gumbo is a delicious thicker soup of okra, shredded chicken and spices. Jardin tropical is a salad of fresh greens tossed with a pineapple vinaigrette. The best pizza is the roasted garlic, a medium-crusted pie pungent from bits of caramelized garlic and just enough goat cheese.

Personally, I bristle at dish descriptions longer than an article in the Wall Street Journal, particularly when I could order something straightforward and appealing like the jerk chicken--chicken breasts cooked to near blackness in spicy jerk sauce. Sometimes there is a California paella, chock full of swordfish, sausage, chicken and shellfish; it runs $22, but it's enough to feed two.

All the desserts are good. They include a terrific citrus creme bru^le e and a rich, dark, flourless chocolate cake, served warm with gobs of whipped cream. Best of all is the coconut macadamia ice cream sandwich, great cookies wrapped around vanilla bean ice cream, drizzled with a nice chocolate sauce. If you're head isn't spinning after an evening at Cha Cha Cha, you'd better have all your senses checked.

BE THERE

Cha Cha Cha, 17499 Ventura Blvd., Encino. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-12:30 a.m. Friday, 10:30 a.m.-12:30 a.m. Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday. Dinner for two, $32-$55. Full bar. Complimentary valet parking. All major cards. (818) 789-3600. Suggested dishes: the special Cha Cha Cha appetizer platter, $18; mambo gumbo, $4.50; roasted garlic pizza, $7; St. Bart's curry shrimp, $16.

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