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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Divine Prime Offers Southwestern Mishmash

A lobster is waving at me. Hiya, fella. It’s waving feebly but gamely from the bed of shaved ice full of sea scallops, bay scallops, big shrimp, little shrimp and all sorts of oysters and clams, and it’s right in front of my eyes as I’m trying to dine.

Divine Prime, as I recall, started out as a premium butcher shop. In fact, I think it claimed to be the most expensive butcher shop in town. The display of shellfish seems to be all that’s left of the butcher department, though. Raw meats are just about not to be found here, and in fact beef is altogether in pretty short supply, leaving the name Divine Prime a little high and dry.

Nowadays, Divine Prime is a combination take-out deli, counter-service diner (the staff will microwave anything on demand) and limited gourmet store--the last part being a sort of condensed version of Divine Prime’s sister store Seventh Heaven a couple of doors away on Montana Avenue.

It’s an odd selection on these shelves: fancy sauces, blue-corn tortilla chips, exotic soft drinks (such as Idris ginger beer, which really tastes like ginger), gourmet popcorn brands and some rarely encountered lines of potato chips, including one with dill pickle flavor added. That last item does not particularly appeal to me, but I’m sure it’s a godsend to those who can eat potato chips but must cut down on their dill pickle consumption.

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This would all be a little hard to get a handle on if it weren’t for the fact that Divine Prime volunteers a self-designation: Southwestern, by which we are largely to understand health-foody Mexican. In these deli cases you can find huge vegetarian burritos filled with pinto beans, zucchini and crookneck squash--not a bad combination, by the way--a little sweet with onions and savory in a very mildly spicy way. This same pattern of two kinds of squash where meat would otherwise be expected repeats itself in the likable Mexican pizza (on a whole wheat tortilla, of course).

There are also trendier things like soft tacos (on whole wheat tortillas, of course) filled with rice, mushrooms and duck. These are pretty good. On the other hand, the chiles rellenos are breaded in a fanatically up-to-date batter of blue cornmeal. It’s more than crunchy; it’s positively gritty, like some kind of bluish lizard skin.

The other side of the Southwest coin is the selection of ribs, very much a mixed bag. If veal ribs are truly what you’re after, this is the place to come, pard--they come in a nearly flavorless sauce. The Chinese pork ribs are in a decent Cantonese sweet-sour sauce. The “Arizona cactus beef ribs” are said to have cactus in the sauce, a flavor described as resembling a lime-flavored onion, but I can’t say I can detect it. As meat, all the ribs have a bland hot-table quality.

You can get chicken baked in cornflakes, for some reason described as “Louisiana chicken,” or a barbecued Cajun chicken, or roast chicken with garlic and rosemary. We’re straying a bit from the Southwest here, but maybe the California meat loaf (not bad, with onions and corn kernels in a mild veal meat loaf) is also Southwestern. The spaghetti with tiger prawns is from nowhere special, in a tomato sauce with a bit of dill, but it’s actually quite good.

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Whoa, here we are back in the Southwest: the chile bean selection. We have faintly hot pinto beans with cilantro, a bizarre red bean chile that is rather bittersweet and hotter, and a perfectly bizarre white bean and turkey chile, flavored with dill.

My dessert deputy once joined me here and sportingly ordered every sweet in sight. This included a pie filled with an odd combination of blackberry and mango, which worked in a peculiar way, as if there were a strange spice in the berries. However, you won’t catch her ordering the chocolate bread pudding twice. It’s as dry as the Great Southwest itself, and not quite chocolatey enough, either.

I reckon Divine Prime is more useful as a take-out place than a dining place, even though the seats do provide room for you to stick packages. I can’t say I see the point in everything they do here, but we Southwesterners believe in living and letting live. Don’t we, little lobster?

Recommended dishes: fresh corn tamales, $1.75; California meat loaf, $7.50 a pound; blackberry-mango pie, $3.50 a slice.

Divine Prime, 718 Montana Ave., Santa Monica; (213) 458-1116. Open for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday and closed Monday. No alcoholic beverages. Parking lot in rear. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $16 to $41.


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