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Eat to the Beat of Latin America

July 22, 1999|ERNESTO LECHNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Call it a pan-Latino multicultural experience.

As part of a Los Angeles trend that includes the popular Conga Room, the newly opened La Isla del Mambo has restrained itself from identifying with the tradition of any specific Latin American country. Instead, the Melrose Avenue restaurant-club borrows elements from different regions, creating a mood that underscores the most hip elements of Latino culture.

Like the Conga Room, La Isla del Mambo makes good use of its fragmented space. You enter into the main dining room, where a rich mix of Cuban cuisine and dishes from the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico is served up. The food from both these regions is overwhelmingly sensuous and, fortunately, the prices are just right, offering a good value considering the sophisticated combination of different flavors and textures.

The dining room is decorated with artifacts and folk art that owner Rudy Escamilla has collected on many trips south of the border. The predominance of colorful, mismatched objects gives the space a casual atmosphere.

In the dining room, guitarist-singer Guillermo de Anda, a veteran of the local Latin music circuit, usually performs, accompanied by Costa Rican singer Iliana Garcia. Keeping with the aesthetic of the place, De Anda offers his listeners an eclectic mix from the Latin American songbook.

Musically, though, the real action takes place upstairs on weekend nights. A tiny room covered with mirrors that looks like a neighborhood dance studio has been turned into an impromptu salsa club. The stage is barely big enough to accommodate Rudy Regalado's 10-piece house band, but the intimacy of the space appears to infuse the Venezuelan bandleader with renewed spice. On a recent night, Regalado sounded better than ever, adding to his usual repertoire of originals a few classics from the golden age of Cuban salsa, like the blistering "Que Bueno Baila Usted."

If you are not well versed in the art of the syncopated salsa step, this awkward space might help you loosen up. You are likely to feel you are in somebody's living room rather than in a club. And if you just want to listen to the music, a few leather chairs are sprinkled casually around the room. You won't get thirsty, either. Hidden in the darkness of a corner is the bar.

Should you want to retreat from the noise for a quiet conversation, the restaurant has a small patio on the back of the building.

Escamilla has big plans for La Isla. His dream is to see the venue become a sort of Latino social club, where people from all walks of life can get together and enjoy the quintessential elements of every Latin American party: food, music and a game of dominoes. In fact, he plans to hold domino contests, and he will also use the room upstairs for exhibitions of works by promising Hispanic artists.

BE THERE

La Isla del Mambo, 7174 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. Food served daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Live music on weekend nights. (323) 937-7346.

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