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Restaurants | Counter Intelligence

A Fresh Take on Old Standbys

April 18, 2002|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Itinerant musicians wander in and out of Tamales Liliana's in East Los Angeles. One day you might hear a peppy accordion, another day a romantic guitar, or there may only be hand-wringing drama from a telenovela on the TV set high in one corner. The entertainment at Liliana's varies, but the food doesn't change. It's always good.

The menu is short, concentrating on antojitos such as gorditas, sopes, tostadas, burritos and, of course, tamales, as well as a few meat stews and egg dishes for breakfast--nothing you couldn't find elsewhere. What sets Liliana's apart is the freshness of the food. It's prepared to order, so chilaquiles arrive with the edges of the fried tortillas still crisp, rather than soggy from standing in the sauce.

And the flavors are surprising. Carne con chile colorado--strips of pork in red chile sauce--departs from the usual concept of meat in a vigorous blend of dried chiles. The color is lighter, a golden orange rather than a deep brick red, and there's an unexpected nuance, an almost imperceptible tang that turns out to be tomatillos combined with guajillo chiles.

Pork in salsa verde may not be unusual, but the green sauce is well made, subtly flavored with tomatillos and spicy with green chiles. Like other main dishes, it comes with rice and refried beans, shredded lettuce, tomato and tortillas.

Most Mexican restaurants around here base their moles on the famous mole from Puebla, with its sweet, dark brown, chocolate-enriched sauce. Instead, Liliana's makes a Zacatecas-style peanut mole that, according to one of the waitresses, involves bacon, squash seeds and tomatoes as well as nuts and chiles. Less deeply colored, the sauce is mixed with cut up boneless chicken rather than the whole pieces typical of mole poblano. Another plus: The chicken is freshly cooked and juicy.

The Zacatecas influence is apparent not only in the mole, and Zacatecas-style gorditas and huaraches, but in scenes of Zacatecas painted onto the pale pink walls.

Located on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue (there is another location at 3448 E. 1st St.), this is a spare, simple restaurant, just three rows of tables in one room and a takeout counter in an anteroom opening onto the street. Even if you eat there, drinks come in plastic foam containers, as if you had ordered them to go.

People drive long distances to buy Liliana's tamales. Fillings include meat in red or green chile sauce, chicken with vegetables, chile strips with cheese, a sweet tamale that contains raisins and pineapple, and a plain fresh corn tamale. You can order them on a tamale plate with beans and rice at the restaurant, or take a sack home. Most Mexican restaurants reserve pozole for weekends, but Liliana's offers this hearty soup every day. Crisp, freshly shredded cabbage and sliced radishes top the big bowl of broth, pork and cooked dried corn. You add lime juice, oregano and hot sauce to taste. Golden brown fried tortillas, as flat and crisp as crackers, accompany this dish.

Gorditas come in paper sacks because the corn cakes fall apart when drenched with sauce from moist fillings such as chicharrones (fried pork skin) in green sauce. Huaraches (sandals) are oval bases of masa topped with meat, shredded lettuce, tomato, Mexican crema and cheese. Sopes transfer the same ingredients to a different type of base, a thick small circle of masa with edges pinched to form a rim. Cheese enchiladas are lightly coated with red chile sauce rather than submerged in it. Tacos, flautas and tostadas are also available.

The only dessert on the menu is flan, but a sign in the window announces that Guadalajara-style jericalla has arrived. This is a light pudding, made without caramel sauce and baked until the top is golden brown.

If you want a tall, cold Mexican drink, ask for horchata, tamarindo or jamaica. The cinnamon-y horchata is especially good. However, the lead drink here is champurrado, which is like hot cocoa, thickened with masa. The Liliana's version is sweet and delicately flavored rather than dark with chocolate. You could call it liquid comfort food, it's that soothing.

Tamales Liliana's, 4619 Cesar E. Chavez Ave., East Los Angeles, (323) 780-0989. Open Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Street parking. No alcohol. There is a $1.50 charge for using a credit card. Lunch for two, $6 to $12. What to get: chilaquiles with green sauce, sopes, tamales, pozole, carne con chile colorado, mole de cacahuate con pollo, carne de puerco en salsa verde, champurrado, horchata.

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