A Cute Little Restaurant on a Cute Little Street : Tamales with caviar . . . there goes the neighborhood?

Larchmont is a little street that looks like it got lost on its way to the Midwest: it has small-town charm. The boulevard boasts the sort of barber who's been giving kids their first haircuts for the last 50 years, a hardware store, a children's clothing emporium that does not stock designer labels, a butcher and a book shop. It also has what might be California's last true variety store; you can walk into its cool darkness and purchase such sundries as bobby pins, bubble gum and blotting paper.

How these shops manage to survive yuppie gentrification is a mystery to me. I have to admit that I watched the opening of a kitchenware shop with some trepidation. When a real live antique art/furniture/garden shop opened, the fact that it was the city's most tasteful store was little solace; there goes the neighborhood, I thought. I knew that the cozy little restaurants that dot the street--unpretentious places for the most part, where you can get sandwiches made of real turkey and sit for hours over a single cup of coffee--were doomed.

First came that little Greek restaurant. It had a clean, sophisticated air--sort of like a storefront eatery in New York--and it looked like trouble. But Le Petit Greek turned out to be a great neighborhood place. The food is good, as are the prices, and any small town would be happy to have it.

Then along came Louise's, with its reasonable prices. For a while after that, all was quiet on the Larchmont front. But then a couple of months ago another door sprouted a sign announcing the iminent opening of a restaurant. Through the window, things didn't look hopeful: People on ladders were painting angels on the ceiling! It seemed as if this might be the beginning of the end for L.A.'s most charming street.

When Prado finally opened, I walked through the door with some anxiety. What can you expect from a place named for one of the world's most important museums? I wasn't thrilled by what I saw. The place may be tiny, but it is preciously pretty, with baby-blue chandeliers up above and live plants on every table. The waiters tend to be of the out-of-work-actor type. I got the feeling that ours was auditioning at the table, hoping that one of us might be a casting agent ready to give him his big break. Then I picked up the menu and groaned. It's so trendy that it looks like a copy of the one at Cha Cha Cha.

"They've even got the corn chowder," I gasped. The thin, spicy, flavorful chowder made without cream is one of the highlights at Cha Cha Cha. It's a highlight here too, providing you don't mind a soup that bites back.

The Cha Cha Cha connection is not accidental. Prado, it turns out, is not a reference to the great museum of Madrid, but to the chef/owner of Cha Cha Cha, Toribio Prado. This is his family's place, and that's his brother Javier in the kitchen.

The food he makes is mostly Caribbean--the main dishes come with a choice of black beans, rice, plantains or fried yucca (if you don't specify, they're likely to throw a little of everything onto the plate). There's one pasta dish (the chic angel hair, of course) and a $9 nod to vegetarians, but the menu is mainly an ode to island cooking. There are flaming shrimp and spicy chickens, and even the steak is smothered in a garden of chopped tomatoes and onions.

Prado doesn't offer very many appetizers. The Caesar salad is only fair, and the other salad's main attraction is its low price. But the salad with barbecued shrimp (an occasional special) is a delight, made of vegetables that have been cooked, chopped up, sprinkled with shrimp and tossed in a dressing of balsamic vinegar. The corn tamales are very nice: soft, sweet little pillows of cornmeal in a gentle, cream-topped salsa verde. There's golden caviar on top, but it turns out to be more of a tasty touch than a trendy frivolity.

The best of the entrees are the ones that come in that slightly sweet, sexy, spicy black sauce. These include pollo negro (chicken) and camarones negroes (shrimp). Both are entirely seductive dishes that will have you swiping the rice off of neighboring plates to sop up the last of the sauce.

The flaming shrimp with papaya comes in a similar sauce, only this time drenched with what seems like rum. The shrimp are nice big guys; this is a hard dish to dislike. And the steak, which, as mentioned above, comes topped with a heap of chopped tomatoes and onions, is bigger and better than you have any right to expect for $16.

All of the chicken dishes are good, the angel hair pasta is fine and the curried vegetables (the vegetarian offering) would probably appeal more to vegetarians than it did to this particular carnivore.

Desserts, when I was there, have included only tarte tatin and a raspberry-embellished creme caramel . The wine list is tiny and not very good. After you've been sitting in this pretty place for a while, you might notice that the noise is rising, and you will definitely notice that the tables are cramped.

But none of that really matters. The place is pleasant to look at. The food is good to eat. And the prices are easy to take. It turns out that this is--for all its precious prettiness, its too-hip waiters and its smattering of caviar--another great little neighborhood restaurant. Once again, Larchmont has worked its magic.

Prado

244 N. Larchmont Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 467-3871.

Open Monday-Saturday for lunch and dinner. Beer and wine. Street parking. Visa and MasterCard accepted. Dinner for 2, food only, $25-55.

Suggested dishes: corn chowder, $6; tamales with caviar, $7.75; pollo asado, $10; camarones negroes, $15; tarte tatin, $5.

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