Go out to a restaurant for home cooking? It's not such a strange idea as long as it's cooking we won't get at our home. But home cooking, no matter how much we like it, usually lacks the professional constancy of preparation and the rhythm of service we rightly expect of a restaurant.
Still, if what we get is exciting enough to overcome such liabilities as slow service, wide variations in preparation and a crude setting, it's worth seeking out.
This is the case at Paseo Real, a family-run shack of a place in an industrial strip of North Hollywood. The cluttered window and multicolored sandwich sign loudly announcing Mexican food are neither inviting nor accurate reflections of what you'll find inside.
Through the door are six tables and a counter: a clean, cheery and unself-consciously retro place that you'd hardly go to unless you knew the cooking was special. It is.
At its best, the Latin-American cooking at Paseo Real is subtle, unexpected and downright delicious.
There's no better example than pipian, chunks of savory pork in pumpkin seed sauce. The pale green granular sauce at first seems bland, but almost at once things start happening in your mouth: a tingle of chili, a taste of herb. You may find yourself so engrossed in figuring out what it is made of that before you do, it'll be gone.
On one occasion, I tried the roast pork, which was less obscure but no less satisfying than the pipian. Marinated, garlicked and sliced thin, it was as moist and light as could be.
But the greatest achievement in this basically peasant cooking was "fish in garlic sauce," a highly sophisticated dish. Half a fresh small fish had been fileted (mostly), cooked just to the right moment and served in a perfectly balanced garlic-parsley-mustard sauce. It was far more rewarding than many of the fish dishes I've had at our most stylish restaurants.
And when I asked the Spanish-speaking cook about the sauce, she proudly came out of the kitchen carrying the Mayan stone mortar and pestle with which she prepared the dish; she said it wouldn't taste the same made with anything else.
Because the cooking at the Paseo Real is not restaurant-rigid, dishes will vary in taste from day to day. One day, garlic soup was dense and redolent with garlic; another day it was agreeable but thin and underflavored. I only tried the chicken mole once, but on that day it didn't work--the chocolate had not been suffused into the other ingredients. It was the only dish I haven't liked at Paseo Real.
Other pleasures to be found there are carne asada a la tampiquena, marinated beef filets, and brocheta de cameron, shrimp with bacon and green pepper en brochette.
Some of the dishes come with fried plantains; if yours doesn't, be sure to order some on the side. In fact, they are so gooey, so naturally molasses-sweet that you'll probably want an extra order anyway. It's a rare chance to indulge yourself.
Be ready to enjoy yourself at Paseo Real but keep in mind that home cooking means slow cooking. Not only did I have to wait while my sauce was being ground in the mortar, but others had to wait for their meals to be prepared.
To get the most out of the experience, you may have to let go of your concept of time--at least temporarily--and keep yourself occupied watching pots steaming on the stove. As a noted writer is purported to have said to the head of a film studio: "Do you want it fast, or do you want it good?"
Paseo Real, 5342 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood, (818) 506-9166. Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Beer and wine. Cash only. Dinner for two, food only, about $22.