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RESTAURANT REVIEW : When at La Bamba, Do the Right Thing--Stick With Roast Pig

The Caribbean is one of the most beautiful and ethnically mixed places I know. It has good beaches, clear light, gentle weather (in season) and food blended from disparate cuisines. I’ve liked much of what I’ve eaten there but, surprisingly, there wasn’t much variety in the preparation of the foods. The same can be said for Burbank’s La Bamba, advertised as “a taste of the Islands,” though oddly its menu is mostly Mexican-influenced.

La Bamba’s consistent success is with the Cuban/Puerto Rican lechon asado , roast pig. The meat is moist and flavorsome and lightly, but effectively, seasoned. It can be ordered in a number of dishes, all of which work well.

Among the possibilities is St. Thomas, a platter of excellent roast pork with guacamole, rice and beans. The beans, unfortunately, are as bland as white bread. The pork, however, becomes even more appealing in a taco, a burrito, a tostada or a flauta Caribena , in which the pork is combined with other ingredients including lettuce, cheese, tomatoes and guacamole. This allows the flavor of the meat to open up and join with other tastes, making it even more pleasurable than when served alone.

Some of the same dishes--tacos, burritos--may be ordered with chicken or spiced beef instead of pork. They are good, too, but not as satisfying as the pork. Chicken is best sampled Jamaican style. This is a subtly flavored sort of stir-fry dish served with rice and the, alas, ubiquitous beans.

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It’s not possible to construct a multi-course meal at La Bamba since the place serves neither soups nor appetizers. And the potentially helpful side dishes that were available when I was there were disappointing.

Both the sweet-fried bananas and the tostones Guantanamo style were sponge-dry and flavorless. These Cuban/Puerto Rican favorites are normally an important adjunct to a Caribbean meal. Sweet, that is ripe, bananas (actually plantains, relatives of the banana) should be fried until they are gooey-soft and are usually almost sweet enough to be eaten as a dessert.

Some of the portions at La Bamba are enormous. The tostada, in its freshly fried shell, was a cornucopia of vegetables, fruits, meat and cheese. The flauta was much the same except rolled like an egg roll and outlandishly big.

The salmon special is oversized as well, but peculiar. A quarter of a good-sized fish is briefly poached then covered with chunks of papaya or mango and slices of canned olives. Brushing off the topping helps considerably. The lobster special is an over-boiled one-pounder that was served missing one claw.

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Surprising delights are found among La Bamba’s beverages. A two-glass portion of well-chilled guava nectar is refreshing to the thirst and the taste. (It’s served cold enough that the chilled glass, without ice, suffices. In fact, the ice interferes with the enjoyment of the juice.)

Among the carbonated beverages are a couple of appealing exotics: Materva, flavored with a South American herb normally used for tea, and Iron Beer, a complexly flavored non-alcoholic drink probably containing tamarind. In addition to being tasty in new ways, these sodas taste much less sweet than the ones we are accustomed to. For an actual sweet, try La Bamba’s flan, which is the superb variety that is firm and grainy.

La Bamba occupies a small fresh-looking building whose interior has an open, whitish look associated with the Islands. Color comes from the bright flower-print tablecloths and whimsical artificial parrots (one with offspring) perched here and there on straw hoops. The atmosphere is clean and inviting and appropriate for a casual lunch or light supper.

Recommended dishes: flauta Caribena, $3.50; tostada, $3.95; Jamaica-style chicken, $5.95; flan, $1.50.

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La Bamba, 1220 W. Burbank Blvd., Burbank. (818) 842-9188. Open 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. till 11 p.m. Fridays, 4 to 11 p.m. Saturdays. Alcohol license pending. Street parking. Cash only. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $20-$25.


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