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RESTAURANT REVIEW : International Cuisine at Student Prices : Walter’s in Claremont, with its moderately priced menu, reminds of food served in college towns across the country.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Every college town has one--a large, popular, moderately priced eating establishment. In Claremont it’s Walter’s, a sprawling restaurant with a vast eclectic menu where one can conduct a culinary tour of the world on a student’s--or at least a teaching assistant’s--budget.

Walter’s is such a large, rambling establishment, it reminds me of a recurring kind of dream I have in which I keep finding new rooms in old familiar buildings. On each successive visit to Walter’s in real life, I was escorted further into its recesses and nooks, which take up a nice portion of a city block. For all I know, there are still chambers I have yet to discover.

My first visit to Walter’s was early on a Saturday night. My friend and I were seated in the first room, which I think of as the coffee shop part of Walter’s, what with the booth and counter and visible stainless-steel appliances.

Friday and Saturday nights, in addition to the regular dinner menu, Walter’s offers a special Afghan menu. This included an appetizer platter: battered, deep-fried potato rounds called Afghan fries; battered, deep-fried vegetables; bolanis , which are a savory, meat- and potato-filled deep-fried won ton; and two dips--good yogurt and a wonderful house-made jalapeno chutney.

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Mantu , plump dumplings bursting with spicy beef and onions and topped with a red meat sauce and yogurt, made a good follow-up. The taste was exotic, but generically familiar. It brought back meals I’ve had in Chapel Hill, N.C.; Iowa City, Iowa; Madison, Wis.--other towns with bastions of international student fare. The Kabuli pilaf, a cardamon-spiked lamb-rich rice dish, was made sweet with raisins and set off nicely with some grilled eggplant and tomatoes. There was also hot, crusty nangy bread, made on the premises. Walter’s portions were so generous, we were able to take enough home for another meal.

The next time I went to Walter’s, a friend and I were led into what I now think of as the “ladies’ lunch” section--a pretty, chic area with a crisp, spare green-and-white decor. It was a Tuesday, and only the regular dinner menu was in effect, which is to say, one could get kebabs, pizza, tacos, an Oriental salad, and/or fairly standard dinnerhouse meat-and-potatoes. A spicy corn cake appetizer was like eggy corn bread topped with black beans, sour cream and salsa. We kept trying not to eat it all, to save room for dinner, but it was too good. Next, I had a delicious roasted half chicken with some nice cumin-spiked rice. My friend’s grilled salmon, however, was the only real mistake I found at Walter’s. It was tiny and overcooked and she ended up being glad she’d gorged on the corn cake.

We had excellent service until the waitress set down our entrees. We had to flail our arms for water, which worked, and beg a bus-person for to-go containers, which didn’t work. The next day, around lunchtime, I was hungry for the quarter of a chicken I left behind.

On my third visit to Walter’s, I was taken still deeper into the recesses, down a corridor which led to still another green-and-white room. I was seated under a leaded glass ceiling light in the hallway--just the sort of low, close, in-traffic spot that deters single female diners from being single female diners. Couldn’t I go out on the pretty patio outside, where there were many empty tables? The man who seated me said no, the patio waitresses were too busy.

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I managed to eat part of a large, juicy salata , an Afghan salad made with cubed cucumbers, tomatoes, cilantro, lime juice and a very few chicken breast cubes. I ordered a lamb burrito to take home for dinner that night, and the fat envelope with its unusual, but complementary filling of refried beans and lamb chunks fed two of us quite well.

At the register, I looked at the display case full of lavish house-made cakes and tarts and tirami su and wondered who would have room for dessert after eating a meal here? For sale, too, was the bread, the good yogurty house dressing and that great jalapeno chutney. At the time, I wasn’t tempted. I couldn’t imagine eating another thing ever . Since then, I have to say, there have been times that some of Walter’s jalapeno chutney might have been just the ticket.

Walter’s, 310 N. Yale Ave . , Claremont (714) 624-2779 and 624-4914. Open Monday through Saturday 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. (Sunday brunch 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.) Beer and wine. MasterCard and Visa. Parking available. Dinner for two, food only, $20 - $36.


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