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The Find: Las Delicias in Van Nuys
Golden and shimmery, the fragile crackly exterior of a Costa Rican corn pancake gives way to a moist, dense center. Alongside the Frisbee-size disk comes a small bowl of natilla, a buttery cultured cream that's as heavy and rich as cheesecake. The custom is to scoop up little mounds of cool cream with shards of warm pancake. Each bite is a blissful marriage of contrasts -- crunchy with tender, tart and subtly sweet.
FOR THE RECORD:
Las Delicias review: An incorrect phone number for Las Delicias restaurant in Van Nuys was published in a Find article in the Dec. 30 Food section. The correct number is (818) 988-8323. —
Chorreadas de elote, as they're called, turn up at street festivals, formal restaurants or anyplace Costa Ricans might stop for a café con leche. And about eight months ago, the pancakes surfaced in Van Nuys with the opening of Las Delicias, probably L.A. County's only Costa Rican eatery.
The cooks at this mini-mall restaurant take chorreadas seriously, shucking fresh corn ears and grinding the milky kernels for each day's batch (masa seca made from dried grains wouldn't produce the same deliriously tasty results).
One could assume that a nation famed for mountaintop tropical cloud forests teeming with endangered fauna would serve Anthony Bourdain-pleasing exotica. But no. The corn- and bean-based creations that emerged on fresh-cut banana leaf are almost delicate in their familiar flavorings.
Spic-and-span and newly tiled, the dining room hints of rural Costa Rica with folkloric dolls and tchotchkes from the Meseta Central. Las Delicias serves the cuisine of the country's most populated region. On a silent flat screen, the monuments and parks of the region drift by endlessly.
By the cash register where orders are taken sits a thick bound notebook of photographs illustrating each dish offered. A cordial wait staff delivers your food, attending to every whim. Extra plates? No problem. Refresh my cold café con leche? Sure.
Just about everything you order will come with frijolitos, Costa Rican-style black bean purée, a velvety, inky sludge similar to the Guatemalan version but addictively sweet. Gallo pinto (spotted rooster), the national staple dish of maroon-colored meaty textured beans simmered with "dirty" rice, is available too.
Where to begin
The best overview of the restaurant's cuisine is casado Tico, or married man's meal (what wives traditionally fixed for their husbands at midday).
A delicious mound of picadillo de papas, an achiote-infused stew of precisely diced potato simmered with pork and beef, sits next to juicy chunks of pork carnitas or your choice of marinated grilled chicken breast or beef strips.
The menu lists black beans and rice as go-withs, but you can substitute gallo pinto. A plantain, caramelized to a burnished brown and nearly the diameter of an elephant's trunk, completes the $7.99 plate along with a mild tomato-onion pico de gallo that adds sparkle.
The house-made hot sauce is just for Californians, according to a waitress, "because central Costa Rican food is never spicy-hot." Instead, on every table sits salsa Lizano, a Worcestershire-like vegetable-based condiment -- what ketchup is in the U.S.
Picadillo de papa also fills taco-like gallitos. And alforja Tica, another combination meal, introduces juicy red Costa Rican-style sausages, a kind of Central American knackwurst. The blazing yellow arroz pollo y elote resembles something a grandma might make for a large family reunion. Rice, fresh corn and chicken simmered together tastes of discreet herbal undernotes.
From 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Thursdays, a buffet of weekly changing specialties introduces additional dishes that aren't on the printed menu. I'm hoping they'll be added, as more variety would be welcome here.
Skip the free refilled sodas and investigate the traditional house-made drinks. Horchata, unlike the Mexican variety, incorporates ground and strained peanuts that add a subtly rich dimension to the spiced rice drink.
Agua dulce, a hot drink based on concentrated sugar cane juice -- served with or without milk -- isn't merely sweet; it has an elusive fruitiness. Tasty passion fruit and guanábana juices are made daily from frozen tropical fruits.
That Costa Rican cuisine is way off the L.A. foodie radar shouldn't surprise. Ticos -- as Costa Ricans like to call themselves -- were barely a blip on the last L.A. County census. And vacationers doing eco-tours of the country are likely to be catered to with pizza or sushi.
Now though, with Las Delicias the de facto gathering place for local Ticos, the soulful flavors of their traditional favorites have found a home in L.A.