La Fonda: As Colombian as Apple Pop

Restaurant surrealism is strange and wonderful, and extremely hard to find. The Hollywood pizzeria that looks like it came out of the seduction scene in "Lady and the Tramp" is definitely surreal. The Pico pupuseria half taken up by a plaster-cat-encrusted religious shrine probably qualifies, and so does the stevedores' bar in San Pedro where the waitresses wear frilly lingerie. You can't plan it, even if you're a famous architect--Noa Noa and Kate Mantilini are just places to eat, no matter how much they cost.

La Fonda Antioquena is a clean, well-lighted place on the seedy end of Melrose, an oasis of track-lighting and pink tablecloths among bodegas and Thai video stores. The restaurant specializes in the cooking of the Colombian state of Antioquia--you may have heard of its capital, Medellin, in a context totally unrelated to food.

Large, eerie oil paintings on the walls present one Colombian artist's oddly paranoiac view of Colombian capitalism. (Dining among all these paintings of grotesquely distended businessmen is an unsettling experience, somehow appropriate for a supper apres -Twin Peaks.) The customers tend to be either well-dressed Colombian couples or unreconstructed Anglo counterculture types. And Colombians steam steaks, which might be surreal enough all by itself.

The restaurant used to be located in a storefront that it shared with a bird shop. Some afternoons you could barely hear the tango music for the tweets and squawks. Before that, it occupied the plant-cloaked converted gas station on Virgil that later became a Salvadoran diner named Mr. Cafe, and then Cha Cha Cha. I loved the food at La Fonda, but I rarely went into the place . . . the chalkboard menu was written in idiomatic Colombian Spanish, and nobody there ever seemed to be able to tell me what to expect if I ordered bandeja or Ave Maria bues . (Too often I ordered meals that turned out to be composed of all innards, or of six variations on the thick Colombian corn cake called arepa .)

Plus, it was about a third more expensive than other ethnic restaurants. I usually ordered the terrific grilled sausage called morcilla , kind of a sweetly spiced Spanish boudin , because I knew what it was and I hadn't found anything like it in L.A. But though the restaurant was literally around the corner from my apartment, it somehow made me feel like an Ugly American tourist imposing on the locals of a foreign city.

Now, suddenly, La Fonda is on Melrose and everybody here speaks perfect English, cheerfully so.

"If you don't finish your dinner, no TV for you," the waiter said, pointing at a half-eaten bowl of the Colombian tripe stew called mondongo .

"But I ate all of the tripe," my friend said.

The waiter shuddered. " Brrrr ," he said, "I won't eat that. It comes from the inside of a cow ."

The waiter, a lumbering man, wears a huge sword in a scabbard on one hip, an embroidered purse on the other, as if he'd taken a wrong turn and landed there instead of the medieval theme restaurant down the street. When you come in and sit down, he lugs over the man-sized menu slate, to which he gestures like a first-grade teacher leading a phonics drill. If he likes you, he might persuade you to order his favorite Colombian soda pop, Manzana, which tastes a little like fresh apples. If you don't understand something, he'll pull out a Xeroxed crib sheet explaining that saucocho is oxtail stew, and that bandeja is a traditional Colombian cowboy's platter of broiled steak, rice and arepa , topped with a fried egg and a leathery strip of fried pig's hide, which the crib sheet calls "bacon (Colombian Style)." He'll insist that you order the small fried turnovers, empanadas .

And you should: greaseless and crisp-crusted, corny and stuffed with a creamy forcemeat, they come with a dip of cool, Colombian salsa that seems to be mostly chopped scallion tops, chiles and salt. Empanadas are all the appetizer La Fonda needs (or seems to have on a regular basis, for that matter), superior to both the wonderful version at Cafe Mambo and to those served at the numerous Argentine Westside empanadarias

If you think of the meat as kind of a pot roast, the steaming of steaks might seem less barbaric, and the carne sudada here is good, a cumin-scented eye of round stained yellow with achiote and topped with stewed tomatoes and onions. Sobrebarriga is more or less the same thing done with brisket; lengua in salsa --rich, salty, with the gelatinous intensity of long-cooked meat--is the best variant, made with beef tongue.

If you prefer meat grilled, you might consider Ave Maria bues , which comes with just about everything else: a thin, plate-size marinated steak, tasting strongly of the grill; a dense, spicy chorizo sausage; a dinner salad with a strong vinaigrette; a thick, smoky pinto bean stew (awesome!); fried plantains; rice; arepa, and the inevitable strip of pigskin. The crib sheet translates this surreally large mass of food as the "holy cow" plate. Dali would have approved.

La Fonda Antioquena, 4903 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 962-2853. Open daily, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Beer and wine. Parking in rear. American Express accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $15-$25 .

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