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Carne to Sink One's Teeth Into

At La Barca Jalisco in South Gate, specials such as lengua en salsa verde and mole poblano signal you're off the beaten track.


My dinner--steak, fries and green salad with ranch dressing--would be like a steak dinner everywhere if it weren't for the refried beans and rosy rice on the side, the bowl of fresh tomato salsa and the stack of meaty, handmade corn tortillas still steaming from the grill.

This is carne asada as served at La Barca Jalisco Mexican restaurant in South Gate. The steak is large and cut thin, as is proper for carne asada. Although cooked well done, it's still juicy and tender. The price, $7, is amazing for the amount of food, which includes the tortilla chips and salsa served as soon as you sit down.

La Barca is a bright, cheerful spot, decorated with striped serape fabric, gourds, hanging plants and clusters of huge sunflowers. The people who wait on you are cheerful too. And so is the bright pink color that makes the restaurant stand out as you approach along Firestone Boulevard. The building resembles a nicely landscaped house.

"La Barca" is the name of a town in the state of Jalisco, and the restaurant's specialty is La Barca-style birria (goat stew). Evidently that town favors a simple light tomato sauce with a jolt of chile. You can also have a birria burrito or taco, and on Fridays there's even a fish birria.

You can get the usual Mexican combination plates, but these are not the restaurant's strong point. (The cheese enchiladas, by the way, are filled with queso fresco and only lightly coated with sauce, unlike the drenched versions you get in many Mexican restaurants.) The best dishes are big, meaty specialties like steaks and birria.

A wonderful combination called carne en su jugo looks as dull as can be--it's just plain boiled beef in broth alongside plain boiled pinto beans in their juices. What makes the dish stand out is the accompaniments, served so generously they could be a meal in their own right: sliced tomatoes, radishes and cucumber, cactus paddle salad, guacamole, a grilled green onion and roasted yellow chiles. Eat these with the meat, beans and those wonderful corn tortillas patiently patted and pressed by a woman stationed near the cash register, and the effect is far from dull.

Check the board as you enter for the daily specials. Lengua en salsa verde appears there frequently. The tongue is tender and the dark, deeply flavored sauce is "dynamite," as one dining companion put it. One day its companion specials included mole poblano, tuna salad and a tuna sandwich, a clear indication that this is not your usual Mexican restaurant.

Another popular dish here is costillas de puerco en salsa de tomatillo--pork rib bones and potatoes in an orange sauce that combines the Mexican husk tomato with ordinary red tomatoes and hot dried chiles.

The fried "quail" on the daily menu is not quail at all but Cornish game hen. It's quite good. The skin is as crisp as pork cracklings. And there's a bowl of red sauce tasting of tomatillos on the side.

Fridays bring on plenty of fish specials, like fried fish, fish and shrimp soups and that fish birria. And seafood cocktails are always on hand. The terrific coctel campechana is a huge, heavy goblet full of squid, octopus, abalone, shrimp, oysters, diced tomato and avocado in a light red sauce that is slightly sweet and slightly hot with chile.

If you're not in the mood for Mexican food, you can have a hamburger, chef salad or grilled cheese sandwich. This restaurant supplies anything its customers may want, including breakfast all day. Hearty breakfast offerings range from steak and eggs and a create-your-own omelet to chilaquiles (tortilla hash) and huevos rancheros. There's also a desayuno grande that stuffs you with three eggs, bacon, sausages, sliced ham and hash browns or rice and beans. Children can order from a kid's menu. Come for lunch and you're given a little bowl of meat and vegetable soup at no charge--a nice, homey touch.

Be sure to glance at the awesome list of cocktails, some with risque names that are a little surprising to see in a family restaurant. When I tried to order the comparatively innocent Xochimilco, my waitress indicated that these drinks are not actually served--but I could order beer or a margarita; strange.

Even better, though, are the aguas naturales--long cool drinks made with fresh fruits such as pineapple or cantaloupe. These will be wonderful when summer's heat finally arrives in all its strength.

BE THERE: La Barca Jalisco Restaurant, 3501 Firestone Blvd., South Gate. (213) 564-5141. Open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. All major credit cards. Full bar. Parking lot. Dinner for two, food only, $12 to $20.

What to Get: birria, carne asada, carne en su jugo, lengua en salsa verde, coctel campechana.

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