Lifestyle

El Caserio Silver Lake has pan-Latin charm

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THE pork chop on my plate is twice as thick as the Michelin Guide. Lightly seared and faintly rosy at the center, it has the heft and juiciness you'd expect of a chop served at Jar or BLD. It's accompanied by a silky sauce redolent of cream and roasted nuts, its roots solidly in Latin America but with inspiration from French technique. Right now the only place to find this dish is at El Caserio Silver Lake, the dramatically enhanced sibling of William Velasco's 25-year-old restaurant known for its raved-about Ecuadorean and Italian food and a notoriously obscure Virgil Avenue location in Los Angeles. The original is so entrenched in the neighborhood that many regulars order without looking at a menu.

But Velasco is nurturing bigger dreams. He's taken a characterless insurance company building (in yet another obscure location) and, over the last five years, turned it into a place that resembles a colonial viceroy's rambling hacienda.

This is clearly his obra maestra, his labor of love. Bit by bit he's furnished it with cherished acquisitions: a 200-year-old carved door, a handblown glass chandelier found on his travels in Italy, antique furniture, mosaic patio tiles and chocolate-colored Brazilian teak flooring.

Here you feel enveloped in Old World comforts, encouraged to linger over a brandy or the good after-dinner coffee.

The restaurant, masked by shrubs, has the look of a private home. The entrance is hidden on London Street around the corner from the Silver Lake Boulevard address. It's so hidden that one evening my guests frantically phoned for directions. They hadn't realized that Sunset Boulevard crosses Silver Lake as an overpass, though on maps it appears to be an ordinary intersection. (If El Caserio Silver Lake had an unlisted phone number, it might become suddenly chic).

All my guests' anxieties vanished once they sank into the cushy banquettes, sampled the delicious homemade focaccia topped with caramelized onions and perused the drink list.

The full bar makes mojitos and caipirinhas but also whips up libations that match luscious South American tropical fruits with appropriately flavored alcohol: bright citrusy naranjilla (fruitier cousins of tomatoes) with gin, tart-sweet lulo (mountain blackberry) with cachaca. My favorite cocktail, the Noche Apasionada, combines passion fruit, vodka and a hint of bittersweet Campari.

Most of the cooking at the El Caserio Silver Lake is more modern pan-Latin American than its sibling's countrified comfort food. It's sharper-edged and stylishly presented, although no one would mistake it for fusion cuisine.

The diabolically hot Ecuadorean salsa, swirled with glowing fuchsia-colored pickled onions, is served to every table. Velasco says he's toned down the original recipe; I say, employ this tonsil-searing condiment at your own risk. Most of the appetizers are large enough to be shared by two. Ceviches, for example, are served on huge square porcelain plates.

Slightly retooled favorites from the older menu include llapingachos, crisp-edged potato patties filled with melting cheese -- the Andean answer to the quesadilla. They come alone or as an accompaniment to many meats: garlic-infused roast pork ribs called fritada, marinated grilled skirt steak or South American-style chorizo. With the latter, one patty is crowned with a perfectly soft-fried egg.

You can taste a clean spark of naranjilla in the seco de chivo, a lean stew of goat meat simmered in beer. If you like whole snapper try the viudo de pescado, smothered in a sweet pepper-tomato Creole sauce alongside patacones. These green plantain slices, smashed and deep fried, are at their best soaked in the sauce.

Pastas, including lasagna with rich cheesy béchamel, linguine with fresh clams or fusilli with portobello and porcini in Port wine sauce can be soul-satisfying, if not as exotic as the rest of the menu.

Good as it is, the restaurant is still evolving (as often happens with family-run places). Come summer, a wood-burning oven for pizzas and roasted meats will be fired up. And with good weather the French doors will open onto the tree-shaded patio tables.

I hope by then the hospitable but fairly inept wait staff will have been put through a little more training.

In the meantime, be sure to stay for dessert. The chocolate tart, a rich ganache layer over a chocolate crust, is the most enticing. A mysterious hint of something peanuty in the pastry grows on you, just as the new El Caserio Silver Lake surely will.

food@latimes.com

El Caserio Silver Lake

Location: 401 Silver Lake Blvd., L.A., (213) 273-8945.

Price: Appetizers: $8 to $20 (family-style), entrees: $12 to $28, desserts: $7.

Best dishes:Chuleta de puerco (pork chops), ceviche de camarones (shrimp), llapingachos con fritada (cheese-filled potato patties with roast pork ribs), seco de chivo (goat stew).

Details: Open for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday, from noon to 11 p.m. Saturday, until 10 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. Street and lot parking (across the street). Full bar. All major cards.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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