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For Square Meals, It’s Pine Square

Moviegoers who live at the Seal Beach end of the county probably already know that Long Beach has a new AMC 16 Cineplex in downtown Pine Square.

Now, the food court there features not one but five terrific restaurants, along with shops offering submarine sandwiches, bagels, cookies and more. Other (as yet unnamed) eateries are scheduled to open in the coming months.

You may never make that movie.

Ciao Chow Express is the most offbeat of the restaurants in the complex, a fusion of Italian and Chinese cuisines which Orange County first saw with the recently opened Ciao Mein in Irvine. (The two restaurants are not connected, by the way.) It’s also the only one with outdoor patio seating. Ciao Chow Express was reviewed in last week’s Calendar section.

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The rest of the places are an anthology of our better franchise restaurants. La Salsa claims to have been inspired by the famous taquerias of Mexico City. I call it the best, in terms of freshness and quality, of our Mexican food chains.

La Salsa marinates and then grills its meats, and they come out full of flavor, with very little fat.

The chain uses only canola or peanut oils in the side dishes. The ultra-lean pollo asado and carne asada fill a taco shell better than anything I can think of. The former is blackened chicken, crusty with herbs and spices. The carne asada is lean charbroiled steak.

Every taco automatically comes with cebollitas (charbroiled scallions), and other great side dishes can be ordered at a small extra charge. Fragrant black beans, excellent rice and soft drinks like horchata (made from cinnamon and rice) or sweetened jamaica (brewed from a species of hibiscus--it’s the tart flavor in Red Zinger and similar herb teas) round out a quick lunch in style.

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If tacos aren’t your thing, try the sloppy, oversized burrito grande , which consists of steak or chicken with melted cheese, guacamole, lettuce, rice and beans, all wrapped up in a grilled flour tortilla.

Did I mention the salsas, such as piquant Mexicana , mild gringo or extra-hot verde ? They’re great.

Johnny Rockets is some success story, a simple ‘50s-style hamburger joint that has expanded into a multinational chain, with branches in six countries. This one’s been packed since day one. Not bad for a place with a menu with scarcely more on it than a burger (messy and wrapped in paper), fries, chili, malts and apple pie.

It’s a crammed-looking place, all shiny stainless steel, juke boxes, ‘50s music and hustling fry cooks, and it jumps with energy. You’ll probably find a seat at the counter on one of the cherry-red vinyl stools, but if you want a booth, ready yourself for a wait during peak times. I always order Johnny’s burger 12: a hamburger patty on a fresh bun with lettuce, mayo, pickle, onion slice, a slab of Tillamook Cheddar cheese and some Johnny Rockets red sauce, the latter having a lot more kick than ketchup.

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The chili has a generic flavor, though it’s tasty on a burger, and you can also fancy up your burger with things like bacon, grilled onion, even egg.

The pies are crusty, the malts thick and creamy, and the Cokes come in old-time flavors like cherry and vanilla. The crunchy American fries are decent, too.

But hold the phone, because Benita’s Frites is two doors down. And even without the stuck-up foreign name and the great, original sauce toppings, these are easily the best french fries in Southern California.

Make those “authentic Belgian fries,” twice-cooked, dashed with seasoned salt and served in a giant paper cone. Yes, the Belgians are great fries-eaters. I still recall ordering pommes frites in Belgium for the first time, at some beach in Oostende, and recoiling in horror when the vendor doused the already greasy-looking potatoes with a big glob of mayonnaise.

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Benita’s are different. These fries are cholesterol-free, blanched in oil at a low temperature, then refried to an otherworldly crispness at a high one.

After choosing the size of your order (small, medium or large), you get to pick from a pool of terrific sauces that liven these fries up like nothing you’ve ever tasted before. Here are a few of the best from this international selection: sambala chili, radicchio lemon garlic mayo, peanut curry satay , Andalouse (bell pepper, garlic, tomatoes), spicy ketchup.

Only one sauce is included with small and medium orders (two with large orders) but you’ll be tempted to order extras, because every one of them is that good. The sauces are 50 cents apiece, and you’ll run up a modest bill if you decide to conduct a tasting, the way I did.

I have to admit I was skeptical about trying Koo Koo Roo, where the specialty is skinless, flame-broiled chicken. Now it’s become one of my very favorite places for a quick lunch.

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The take-out menu informs us that this chicken has only one quarter as much fat as fried chicken and “huge percentages less cholesterol and less calories.” What it doesn’t lack is flavor. The spicy, tomato-flavored basting sauce that coats these birds tastes rich and delicious, making chicken here more of a sumptuous finger food that any austere diet measure.

If you want your chicken skin, though, you can get fine rotisserie chicken that has been spit-roasted with garlic and herbs, or even roast turkey (roasted whole; you can order it either sliced or on the bone).

Save room for the fluffy homemade mashed potatoes, served with an oil-free gravy, or any of the unusual side dishes, such as cracked-wheat pasta, marinated cucumber salad, spicy tomato salad and old-fashioned sage stuffing, to name just a few.

You’ve done your work. Now hit the AMC 16, and go nuts trying to decide between all those movies. Who said our parents had it better?

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Cia Chow Express is moderate; all other restaurants here are inexpensive.

Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition. * Times Link: 808-8463. To check an Orange County restaurant by name to see if The Times has reviewed it recently, call TimesLink and press *6170 For other weekly recommendations from Max Jacobson, press * 6160

* THE FOOD COURT AT THE AMC 16 CINEPLEX

* 245 Pine Ave., Long Beach.

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* La Salsa: Open Sunday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11. (310) 491-1104.

* Johnny Rockets: Open Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 1 a.m. (310) 983-1332.

* Benita’s Frites: Open Sunday and Monday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to midnight. (310) 458-2889.

* Koo Koo Roo: Open daily 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (310) 590-8002.

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