RESTAURANT REVIEW : Cafe San Juan Stays Near Roots of Mexican Food

There's a whole lot of Mexican food in the Los Angeles area, and hardly any of it is worth eating. For each restaurant that serves good, honest cocido , dozens seem to specialize in rubbery microwaved enchiladas and sugary frozen drinks.

It is axiomatic that the quality of an ethnic meal is just about inversely proportional to its cost. Newly arrived immigrants--those likely to know what the food is supposed to taste like, and thus keep the cook on her toes--are usually even further away from the top tax brackets than the rest of us, and a place that is too expensive prices itself out of the range of the very people who would keep it honest.

But up in the dusty northern fringes of the San Fernando Valley, near where the old highway is lined with rough-edged cantinas and seedy one-story motel cabins waiting for a Sam Shepard play to happen, the high concentration of hungry recent arrivals guarantees that the Mexican food is very authentic, and inexpensive, indeed.

On upper Van Nuys Boulevard in Pacoima, there are taco stands and loncherias and fancy Mexican seafood restaurants and at least a couple of places that specialize in the goatmeat stew from Jalisco called birria (it's supposed to be an effective palliative for hangovers). Even the grimiest of them serves Mexican food tastier than anything you'd find in Encino. And they're not all grimy.

Family Establishment

What you notice first about Cafe San Juan, which is a clean, well-lighted family place on a block loaded with junk stores and repair shops, are the pretty green chiles hand-painted on its sign and the frilly ruffled curtains in the window. Inside, the grown-ups sip black coffee and watch soccer on TV and kids gulp chocolate-banana licuados, paying no attention to the norteno accordion ballads that blare from a jukebox at the other end of the room. The walls are festooned with mementos of Mexican ranch life--canteens, straw hats, steer horns, a little girl's embroidered dress. A large portrait of the patriot Emiliano Zapata hangs at the rear of the place.

Glazed crocks holding the day's stews rest on a metal stand in the tiled open kitchen; someone heats tortillas on a griddle. There are a lot of mom 'n' pop restaurants around, but some moms cook better than others. The mom in charge here prepares the best home-style Mexican food I've had outside a home.

" Cafe? " the waitress asks, and hands you a menu whose cover includes a cute photograph of a dog wearing a sombrero and serape. "Hi, amigos," the dog is saying.

"Yes . . . I mean si ," you say, and the coffee is good, hot and strong. Tostadas are not the salad-topped Cal-Mex kind you expect but the Mexican kind, which are small, crisply fried corn tortillas smeared with beans and sharp white cheese that taste so good with coffee. You can shake a Tabasco bottle over the things a couple of times if you want.

Tacos are wonderful here: soft corn tortillas also smeared with beans, and stuffed with vegetables and spicy crisps of the grilled, marinated steak called carne asada. The restaurant serves no chips, but the two salsas that appear with the tacos--especially the smoky, intense red salsa made, I think, with fiery chipotle chiles and better than the (I thought) definitive version at Border Grill--are exemplary.

If Cafe San Juan served nothing more than its world-class chile verde, chunks of pork long-stewed in a tart, perfectly balanced green salsa made with tomatillos and green chiles, it would still be worth the long schlep from Woodland Hills. Or from Cleveland. There's chicken ranchero, tender and steeped to the bone in an extremely spicy tomato sauce (what at first look like pieces of canned string beans are actually little serrano chiles stewed whole), and crisp, delicious chiles rellenos, which are stuffed with musky Mexican cheese.

On weekends, the tripe stew called menudo is served--I don't eat the stuff, but a menudophile friend told me it was nearly as good as her grandmother's. Of course, that could be a load of tripe.

Cafe San Juan, 13324 Van Nuys Blvd., Pacoima, (818) 897-6144. No alcoholic beverages. Breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days. Parking in lot. No credit cards. Lunch or dinner for two excluding drinks, $8-$15.

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