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EATS: in and around the Valley | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Uruguayan Initiation

Eatery's simple but sumptuous fare includes pizzas, pastries.

July 23, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Little ever gets written about the tiny country of Uruguay in these pages, and probably next to nothing about restaurants with Uruguayan roots. So if this column isn't exactly a first, I'll bet it's pretty close.

People I know who have been to Uruguay describe this little country of 4 million as beautiful, peaceful--and crammed with glamorous seacoast resorts frequented by wealthy visitors from Buenos Aires.

Now I've learned a little more about what Uruguayans eat, thanks to El Che Pibe, a tiny and very reasonably priced restaurant and bakery in Mission Hills. El Che Pibe is a modest storefront where you eat at small tables with red and green tablecloths, but the cooking is sumptuous. Owners Feliciano and Margarita Franco turn out exquisite pizzas, pastas and pastries, including several filled with the thick caramel cream known as dulce de leche.

Feliciano is the Uruguayan; Margarita is a native of Argentina. Many restaurants in both countries are Italian, thanks to large immigrant populations dating from the turn of the century.

On my first visit, Feliciano Franco was just taking a pie-size vegetable tortilla out of the oven. We're talking about the frittata-like tortilla espanola here, as opposed to the familiar Mexican tortilla. We ordered a couple of wedges of the spinach, tomatoes, carrots and other vegetables bound with eggs, and it was delicious.

The huge milanesa sandwiches are made by pounding filets of meat thin, breading them lightly, then frying and stuffing them into wonderful home-baked rolls. The beef milanesa is like a South American chicken-fried steak sandwich with mayo, lettuce, tomato and onion. The lighter chicken milanesa is even better, and both are big enough to share.

The Francos serve exceptional homemade pastas, though the choice of sauces is limited to Bolognese, marinara and Alfredo. They make one of the most delicate fettuccines you'll have anywhere. I like it cloaked in a meaty Bolognese and blanketed with Parmesan.

There are meat or spinach ravioli, and the light, fragrant spinach and cheese cannelloni is a nice match for the pungent house marinara. The Francos even make terrific potato gnocchi that practically melt in your mouth.

I'd feel confident ordering anything from the oven here. On the counter you can usually find a variety of empanadas, flaky little pies filled with ground beef and olives, spicy chopped chicken or spinach and cheese. All three varieties are quite good. There are pizzas, too, with chewy crusts and perfectly golden brown bottoms.

Now for El Che Pibe's pastries and desserts. Come for espresso in the morning and you may want to try a media luna, a croissant. The very Uruguayan alfajor de milhojas is a multilayered cake with chocolate frosting outside and dulce de leche between each layer. The Francos' son informed me that panuelitos, crusty turnovers that Feliciano fills with a huge smear of dulce de leche, could be considered either Argentine or Uruguayan. But perhaps the best sweets are tiny individual pies with apple, blueberry or cherry fillings under lattice-top crusts.

BE THERE

El Che Pibe, 11541 Laurel Canyon, Mission Hills. Open 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday. No alcohol. Parking in lot. Dinner for two, $9-$15. Suggested dishes: beef empanada, $1.20; fettuccine, $4; gnocchi, $4; chicken milanesa sandwich, $3.50; panuelitos, $1; cherry pie, $1.40. (818) 838-7177.

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