FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA

Compiled by Steven Smith

Our native food keeps getting more interesting, as these recently reviewed restaurants prove. Whether you're in the mood for pot roast or chicken pot pie, Cajun heat or Southwest corn cakes, one of these new American restaurants should fill the bill. All prices exclude drinks.

EL TORITO GRILL (59 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, (714) 640-2875). This place is a flat-out winner, remarkably daring for a member of the El Torito chain. The Southwestern decor is spare and quasi-whitewashed--lots of desert plants, a few tasteful Indian designs. Tortillas are good and flaky, and served with a smoky-flavored sauce. Entrees often come with a delicious pudding-like "corn cake" and stunning refried black beans. The most startling plate is the corn-flour pasta, rather like fettuccine Alfredo with corn flavor and a slight red pepper bite. Blue corn duck tamalitos are novel, too--small tamales with a corn flavor and a terrifically rich sauce. Open for lunch and dinner daily. All major credit cards. Full bar. Valet parking. Dinner for two, $20-$40. GALAXY CAFE (2920 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica, (213) 392-9436). Like Ship's and the ghost of Googie's, the Galaxy Cafe is a reminder of modernist coffee shops past, from the streamlined facade to the black sunburst sconce. The menu is enormous (breakfast is served all day), and wherever you sit, service is attentive, casual and quick. The best main course is the simplest: a plate of vermicelli laden with garlic, basil and tomatoes. Potato pancakes laden with sour cream and lumpfish caviar are more than credible, as are the snappy spinach pancakes. Hamburgers are lean and juicy, but they're often served with unannounced mayonnaise. Open for dinner nightly. V, MC. Beer and wine. Lot and street parking. Dinner for two, $15-$35. J.E.B. STUART'S COUNTRY MANOR (1933 Sunnycrest Drive, Fullerton, (714) 871-0541). This recently opened restaurant exudes antebellum style. Fans revolve languidly in the ceiling. Waitresses in long gray skirts walk through a surprising number of dining rooms done in slate blue or tiny floral print wallpaper. The menu has barbecue, a few Louisiana dishes, and some of the best Southern-fried chicken served in California. The place also makes a few concessions to California, like a serviceable salad bar. Prime rib is one of the best things here; you can either get it straight or "Johnny Reb" style, meaning with a simple, appealing dose of hot pepper on it. The meat is extremely tender and beefy. Open for lunch Mon.-Fri, dinner nightly. AE, MC. Full bar. Lot and street parking. Dinner for two, $28-$52. PATOUT'S (2260 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 475-7100). This soft and pretty Cajun cafe seems filled with the spirit of the bayou. The swirling wallpaper of leaves . . . the Mardi Gras music . . . the Louisiana-born chefs and busboys . . . these elements combined make the air feel very Southern. Be warned: The portions are immense. Of the fish plates, the crawfish is a particularly irresistible version of Cajun popcorn, and from the Atchafalaya swamp come meaty and spectacular frog legs. The gumbo here is the real thing--the roux is dark, the flavor smoky. Even better is the shrimp-and-crab stew, a thick soup that's dark, rich and wonderful. The menu changes daily, but you'll usually find Redfish Eugenie; it's astonishing that a fish dish could be so rich--but surprisingly, it works. Open for lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner nightly. All major credit cards. Full bar. Valet parking. Dinner for two, $30-$60. TUDY'S RESTAURANT (5006 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 937-7917). Tudy's is a modest restaurant serving American home cooking with soul food overtones--fried chicken, short ribs, collard greens, mashed potatoes. Lunch and dinner menus are the same: the half fried chicken served with honey is crusty, moist and good. The short ribs are incredibly good with gravy, and the burgers are terrific. There are also scallops, crab, snapper, trout and shrimp for fish lovers and calf's liver for liver lovers. The mashed potatoes and fries are made with real potatoes and the greens are the real stuff, too. Although it has opened only recently, Tudy's is ready and recommendable. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Cash only. Lot parking. Dinner for two, $12-$25. YANKS (262 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, (213) 85-YANKS). Yanks feels like a cross between a ladies' tearoom of the '40s and a New England seafood house. The food is straightforward, hearty, eminently American. Chicken pot pie is excellent, and a bargain: with green salad it costs $9.50. Grilled salmon is perfectly cooked, the flesh fresh and delicate. Roast chicken has a fine tang of lemon juice. Spicy Cajun meat loaf may look awful--a little brown square--but it's filled with flavor. Sliced sirloin is superb--a sort of American carpaccio, topped with a tangy parsley and caper sauce as green as a lawn. Open for lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner nightly. V, MC, AE. Full bar. Valet parking. Dinner for two, $28-$60.

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