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RESTAURANTS

Worldly Brunches

April 22, 2001|LINDA BURUM

After weekday breakfasts consisting of little more than harried bites before work, the leisurely, decadent weekend brunch seems a just reward. With more than 100 nationalities living in and around Los Angeles, the selection includes a mesmerizing variety from an international menu. Shanghai-style leek cakes, better than many in China, turn up in obscure lunchrooms. Spicy Cuban picadillos at a neighborhood cafe outshine most island versions. You can always get dim sum, and, of course, any number of coffee shops serve croissants and huevos rancheros all week.

On the weekend, the landscape changes. Many restaurants go all out to make blowout meals filled with nostalgic favorites. So when you next hanker to break with your usual routine, you might keep these places in mind.

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Like an enchanting country house in Mexico's heartland, Gallo's Grill sets the tone for relaxing meals. Sizzling platters blanketed with steak are the primary focus at this primo Mexican grillery, but on weekends, Gallo's prepares an entirely different menu for breakfast. The food has a refined authenticity and freshness rare in L.A.

Dainty enchiladas suizas--compact white-meat chicken filling rolled into warm hand-made corn tortillas--come splashed with a sauce that includes fresh cilantro and a little cream. Sopes, unlike the usual thick, oil-soaked fried masa bowls, are thinner, larger and grilled. A veneer of melted cheese protects this shell from the filling's earthy, chile-tinged meat juices.

Of course menudo is the requisite weekend dish, and Gallo's version is compelling for the restorative qualities of its deeply rust-colored, protein-rich broth. No shortcuts are taken. Cooks grind whole dry chiles and buy whole tripe, cleaning it scrupulously. The soup never has that barnyardy flavor that results from using frozen, pre-cut tripe. Gallo's prepares each order the way customers request it: with or without hominy or a pork bone. Other not-to-miss dishes are queso fundido, topped with Gallo's homemade chorizo; agua de pepino, an icy cucumber-lime refresco drink; and superb pan dulces from El Gallo, the related bakery across the street.

Gallo's Grill, 4533 Cesar E. Chavez Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 980-8669. Weekends from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Entrees, $6.95 to $8.95. Agua frescas, $1.49. Coffee, $1.15.

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The perpetually mobbed Sunday dim sum scenes at swank Cantonese seafood houses can turn into traffic jams of dumpling-laden steam carts. But a calmer, more intimate alternative is the modest J&J Restaurant (called Jin Jian on its take-out menu). This Formica-clad cafe specializes in casual Shanghai-style foods: translucent-skinned seafood dumplings and tiny topknot bao filled with crab, for instance. Besides dim sum, the cafe has true breakfast items, served only Saturday and Sunday. The part of the menu that lists the breakfast items is written in Chinese, and little English is spoken here, so it helps to know the Chinese names of the dishes.

Almost everyone orders bowls of warm sweet or savory soy milk to accompany various buns and cakes. Some diners spike the savory version with chile oil, or use it for dipping the chung yo bien, Chinese doughnut rolls that come wrapped in scallion-flecked flat bread. Yo tee-yee-o, a bar-shaped crispy rice cake, is another good choice for dipping. Other excellent selections: siao bien, meat-filled sesame pancakes; chai bao, which is vegetable-filled bao; yo tun tsuh, fried grated radish cakes; wo te-ah, pan-fried dumplings; and any of the noodle soups delivered in sink-size bowls.

J&J Restaurant, 301 Valley Blvd., #109, San Gabriel; (626) 308-9238. Weekends from 9 a.m. to noon. Items, 70 cents to $5.95.

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ANTOJITOS LATINOS may seem overly plain for a weekend breakfast adventure because the eatery also doubles as a mini mart, with diners facing shelves filled with stacks of delicious-looking Colombian chocolate and exotic canned goods. But breakfast buffs will want to try this place. The tiny cafe draws homesick Colombians with its desayuno paisa, or country-style breakfast. A scramble of eggs and tomatoes is flanked by a mix of beautifully cooked rice and firm red cargamento beans plus an arepa, the national corn pancake filled with molten cheese. On the side comes a spicy fresh herb sauce to splash on at will. It's enough food to fortify a field hand for several days.

It's the rare restaurant this side of Miami where you can have "onces," the term for the traditional Colombian midmorning coffee break. Light eaters simply take a cafe con leche with a pan de bono, slightly chewy yucca, or bunuelos, the faintly sweet, cheese-spiked doughnut-like spheres.

Heartier appetites may go for a chicken or beef empanada or papa rellena, a savory meat-stuffed potato ball, or its cylindrical relative, yucca rellena with a core of spiced minced meat. Batidos de leche or jugos, Colombia's version of smoothies, are whipped up from exotic Colombian fruits such as maracuya, lulo and curuba.

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