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EATS: Restaurant Reviews and News | COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Blast From a Tasty Past

Dal Rae in Pico Rivera has survived four decades by serving food that is rich, complex and surprisingly good.

March 26, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In 1958, the year the Dal Rae opened, Southlanders went out to places like Perino's and the Windsor for Continental food. Then came the foodie revolution, and dishes such as steak Diane, veal Oscar and lobster Thermidor--not to mention those restaurants--faded away.

But miraculously, the Dal Rae has survived the ensuing four decades of food trends. It's still a clubby faux-hunting lodge with a bar big enough to drive an Edsel through (and martinis to match). And with a menu scarcely changed since 1958--a menu that lists steak Diane and all the other Continental dishes an up-to-date foodie would be embarrassed to admit knowing of--it still fills up every night.

It's right in the middle of Pico Rivera. Head west on Washington Boulevard off the 605 and you'll spot its flashing sign a few blocks down. The location may strike you as off the beaten track, but you may gasp when you see how many German and Japanese luxury sedans are parked there.

The place is always busy, and you'd better be ready to order when your waitress unfurls her order pad. The upside is mistake-free service, even with specialties prepared at the table like Caesar salad or cherries Jubilee.

My first waitress wasn't long on chat, but she did mix the best Caesar I've had in recent memory. It had a muscular dressing made with anchovies, Dijon mustard, fresh lemon juice and a healthy splash of Worcestershire. In fact, I enjoyed just about everything I ate at Dal Rae, though I didn't really expect to.

A meal starts with crusty hot sourdough, lavash crackers and that tray of raw vegetables on shaved ice that was once a mark of a fine restaurant in the Southland. One evening, three of us continued the Ice Capades by ordering the iced seafood platter: cracked Dungeness crab, prawns, oysters, a razor clam and two big pieces of lobster. It was all delicious, especially with the unctuous dipping sauce of pimentos and capers in olive oil.

Everything tends to be rich and complex. Clams oreganata is a tasty but immensely rich dish in which a mixture of chopped clams, onions, bread crumbs and bearnaise sauce is stuffed into an oyster shell (instead of a clam shell, because it can hold more stuffing). Teriyaki tidbits consist of four hunks of fork-tender filet mignon topped with mild chiles--and melted cheese. The menu's one concession to culinary trends is ahi sashimi on toast, and even that's dolled up with wild greens, capers, onions, feta cheese and remoulade sauce.

These are mere bagatelles next to the entrees. The veal Oscar is a thick breaded cutlet topped with crab legs, crisp spears of asparagus and more of the kitchen's textbook bearnaise. And the lobster Thermidor, also served in the shell, comes with a truly staggering sauce. A few spoonfuls of this sauce of mushrooms, Sherry, cream and Hollandaise could knock just about anybody out.

Dal Rae makes a terrific pepper steak, which the menu tells us is "often copied--never equaled." Basically, it's a tender New York steak topped with cracked pepper, green onions and fried bits of bacon and mushroom. (The restaurant also will make it with filet mignon.) Even the humble baked half chicken is startlingly good. It takes 45 minutes, because it's roasted to order. And the chefs do a masterful job, garnishing the bird with cloves of roasted garlic and serving it with a delicious meat demiglaze.

You don't have to eat on such a fancy level here. The menu keeps a few simple dishes around, such as spaghetti with meat sauce, a triple decker club sandwich and wonderful cottage fries cooked with onions and jalapen~os.

Among the desserts, I liked the gold brick sundae, where vanilla ice cream is topped with a mixture of melted chocolate and crushed almonds that hardens into an edible shell. I also recommend the sumptuously eggy raspberry bread pudding and, of course, cherries Jubilee, prepared at your table.

Our waitress informed us that she had made the dessert thousands of times, as she heated up three liqueurs, melted butter, brown sugar, lemon juice and pitted cherries in a copper pan. She quickly poured the finished product into a parfait glass filled with vanilla ice cream and hurried off to another table. It was, like everything else here, a flavorful blast from the past, and rich beyond my wildest dreams.

BE THERE

Dal Rae, 9023 E. Washington Blvd., Pico Rivera. (562) 949-2444. Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner daily 5-10 p.m. Valet parking. Full bar. All major cards. Dinner for two, $38-$85.

What to eat: Caesar salad, lobster Thermidor, Dal Rae famous pepper steak, baked half chicken with roasted garlic, cherries Jubilee.

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