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EATS: in and around the Valley | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Full Fare : La Rumba's terrific Cuban food will leave you too heavy on your feet to think of cutting a rug.

July 02, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Recently, I got a letter from the Arleta Chamber of Commerce extolling the virtues of a Cuban restaurant named La Rumba located in, by no coincidence, Arleta. Ordinarily, I take such recommendations with a grain of salsa, but I'd also heard raves about La Rumba from a colleague. I'm happy to report it's every bit as good as everybody was saying.

La Rumba certainly doesn't lack for colorful atmosphere. The place has a bright blue-and-white interior, but that color scheme looks almost subdued alongside the lurid mural of a beach rumba party that's emblazoned on the dining room wall. As for the tables and chairs, they're all yellow, blue or red, the same flashy colors that characterize tropical patios throughout the Caribbean.

You know this is a real northeast Valley joint when you see a head shot of Donnie Wahlberg of the New Kids on the Block. There's music while you dine, too, mournful ballads with a beat that owner Robert Lorenzo calls Cuban Country. But I warn you--if you have a normal appetite, you'll be too full to rumba, or even waltz, before you get halfway through the main course.

The fact is, just about everything here is delicious; it tastes like real home cooking. You start out, for instance, with a basket of butter-grilled Cuban bread, which I would describe as chewy, delicately sweet, soft in the center and scented ever so slightly with garlic.

La Rumba doesn't serve the usual Cuban restaurant appetizers. In fact, the only actual appetizer is a salad of sliced avocados and onions. It's great topped with a few spoonfuls of the terrific salsa criolla.

All main dishes are served with rice and black beans or, if you wish, with what the menu calls gray rice. This dish is better known as congri in Cuba. The main difference between congri and ordinary rice and beans is that the components are cooked together.

The dish I would come back here for endlessly is the superb roasted chicken (pollo asado). The half-bird comes to the table in a bath of lemon juice, olive oil and sliced onions, the skin golden and crisp, the meat so tender it falls apart. Not only is it magically moist, but the flavors of the lemon, olive oil and onions are in perfect balance.

The fried pork (puerco frito) is another miracle. Here you get a huge, square chunk of moist, flavorful meat with a bronzed surface; it flakes apart at a gentle prod. If fried pork doesn't tickle your fancy, consider the garlicky pork roast (lechon asado)--sliced meat in a thin natural gravy. It's delicious, just not as sensuous as the fried pork.

Ropa vieja, literally "old rags," is another nice dish. It's shredded beef with tomatoes, onions and green bell peppers. La Rumba's version is about the tenderest I've ever tasted.

The best seafood dish here is shrimp sauteed in garlic sauce, also good with white rice. I wouldn't bother with the fried red snapper, though, because it has less flavor than the other dishes. Our waiter actually discouraged us from ordering it. He described it as "just frozen fish."

A variety of unusual Cuban soft drinks is available. Batidos, tropical fruit shakes made with a base of either milk or water, are offered in three flavors: mango, mamey or guanabana.

And if you have room, don't pass up La Rumba's terrific homemade flan--dense, eggy and liberally dressed with a perfect caramel syrup. Come on, you weren't really thinking of dancing a rumba after a meal like this, were you?

BE THERE

La Rumba, 8936 Woodman Ave., Arleta. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Closed Monday. No alcohol. Parking in rear lot. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, $18-$27. Suggested dishes: avocado salad, $2.50; pollo asado, $7.95; puerco frito, $8.95; flan, $2.25. Call: (818) 893-6394.

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