RESTAURANT REVIEW : El Porton Ventures to the Westside

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The new El Porton Grill in Westwood is the second restaurant opened in America by CISRA, a Mexican corporation that feeds 100,000 customers a day in Mexico. The first U.S. El Porton, in a large Tianguis shopping plaza in Montebello, is modeled on the cheerful, family-style coffee shop. There are clunky carved wooden chairs and great wagon-wheel chandeliers; the menu is big and glossy and laminated, with full-color photos of many dishes. The clientele is largely Hispanic, and the salsa has a hefty kick.

The new Westwood grill, on the other hand, is located in a glassy new metroplex and has the aesthetic spareness of an art gallery. There are small, chic, wooden chairs; pink napkins; faux-finished walls, and a few very beautiful Mexican artifacts tastefully displayed. Menus are printed on subtle, sand-colored paper; the staff members wear pink knit shirts. And the salsa doesn't bite back.

According to the menu, "The dishes served at El Porton Grill are made from authentic recipes that have been passed down through generations of people from every region in Mexico." There is a sense of faith behind this phrase, that once tasted and understood, this cooking can and will become as popular as El Torito's crab enchilada's and fajitas.

Despite these good intentions, the Westwood branch has made certain concessions. Some of the Montebello branch's greatest dishes--tacos filled with rajas (hot peppers tossed with cream), for instance, and pozole , the hearty and invigorating pork and hominy stew--are missing on the Westwood menu.

And some of the dishes you do get at the Westwood branch are compromised. A side of beans called charros in Montebello has a wonderfully dark, musky taste and big, tasty chunks of beef tendon. In Westwood, you just get beans. And the quesadillas in Westwood look like designer pizzas, bright toppings arranged open-faced on a flour tortilla.

In some instances, Westwood's El Porton Grill is successful in its attempts to showcase diverse Mexican cooking. Almost everything we tried on the left side of the menu, under the headings "Taco Fiesta" and "Antojitos," was lively and delicious.

The cochinita pibil quesadilla was a pretty wheel of intensely flavorful marinated pork, pickled onion, tomatoes and cheese. Tacos filled with tinga a la poblana consisted of four small just-made tortillas, fresh salsa and a mixture of well-seasoned shredded beef and potatoes. Put it all together and you have two drippy, delicious soft tacos.

A cactus salad with cheese, onions and a hint of jalapenos was quenching and quite texturally pleasing. Ensalada de salpicon was a juicy and wildly tasty cold beef salad, especially good scooped up with warm, freshly made corn tortillas.

There were, however, significant disappointments. Caldo Tlapeno, chicken soup with rice and avocado and cheese, was bland. And most of the entrees didn't meet our expectations. The big, generous plates of food, while artfully presented, were perhaps too much of a not-so-hot thing. The best of these dishes--plump, sweet shrimp in a garlic sauce--was undermined by a mound of mushy, bland Mexican rice and limp shredded vegetables.

The chiles rellenos were lovely to behold--big green Anaheim peppers breaded and served in a pool of florescent-orange tomato sauce--but the cheese-stuffed chiles were greasy and the sauce remarkably dull. Similarly, a thin map of swordfish was inundated by deadly tame tomatillo sauce. A poached chicken breast, served with potatoes, was covered in a rich but flat pipian sauce.

Desserts, however, were redemptive. A smooth, soft natilla custard had a sneaky alcohol kick, the flan was jiggly perfection, the caramel-filled crepes rich and buttery. But my favorite dessert was the comforting, creamy arroz con leche, a soft, slow-cooked version of rice pudding.

Of the two El Portons now north of the border, the Westwood grill is approximately one-third pricier--sauteed shrimp, camarones al mojo de ajo, for example, are $8.75 in Montebello, $12.50 in Westwood. The Westwood presentation is also more formal: in Montebello, rice pudding is served in an rustic-looking ceramic bowl; in Westwood, it comes in a stemmed goblet.

El Porton Grill, 1360 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 475-1113. Also at 1105 W. Whittier Blvd., Montebello, (310) 888-8879. Open seven days for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards. Full bar. Validated parking. Dinner for two, food only, $21 to $50.

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