RESTAURANT REVIEW : Old Standby Poquito Mas Branches Out

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Here's some good end-of-the-year news: With three successful locations in the San Fernando Valley, Poquito Mas, "the original Baja taco stand," has jumped over the hills to West Hollywood. In a mini-mall just east of Ben Frank's, this tiny, spanking new restaurant announces itself with the mouthwatering scent of grilling steak.

Inside, read an overhead menu and order at a counter under red galvanized tin roofing. "No lard," reads the receipt we're handed. "No MSG. No cans. And we don't even know what a freezer is."

Waiting for our food, we load up at the educational salsa bar where the various potions are rated according to heat: The "novice" salsa gets a 1; a mild pico de gallo a 2; a red mediana a 5; a flavorful, smoky chapina a 7.5; and a fire-red salsa roja a whopping 9.5--treat it with respect.

There are just a few tables indoors and many more outside--long-term Poquito Mas' regulars at the first (Studio City) location know that wolfing down burritos on a chilly patio is part of the Poquito Mas drill. This new location has a patio full of sturdy green umbrellas overlooking Sunset Boulevard--and heaters. Cops, musicians, set-dressers and the rest of us hunch over juicy tacos and huge tostadas and drink Coke in the slim-waisted green bottle.

Being a Poquito Mas fan for six or seven years now, I know that, sometimes, nothing will do but the San Felipe shrimp tacos, fat handfuls of marinated shrimp quickly grilled and chopped and served with lime, chopped onions and cilantro in doubled mini tortillas; they're a welcome, fresh, sharp flavor in this season of holiday excess--although they are good with an added dollop of guacamole too. Equally pleasing are fresh ahi tacos, generous slabs of nicely seared tuna with a drizzle of red bell pepper sour cream--these are sold at market price, from $3.10 to $4.75.

Old standbys are equally well-prepared: Tacos made with carne asada, the steak that's perfuming the parking lot, are terrific, but don't shy away from the carnitas or chicken, either. Burritos are plump packages of meat with guacamole and salsa. If, like me, you prefer beans in your burrito, they'll slip 'em in on request or you can opt for the bean-and-cheese Vegetariano, my personal favorite. The kitchen will also coat a burrito with a mild red chile sauce, making it wet or mojado. I miss the steak and mushroom quesadilla available at the Studio City location, but I appreciate the kids' menu with a choice of burrito, cheese enchilada or quesadilla for $1.99.

* Poquito Mas, 8555 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 652-7008. Open 7 days for lunch and dinner. Beer served. Cash or checks only. Dinner for two, food only, $7-$28.

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More New Year's: If you are still looking for a restaurant to celebrate New Year's Eve, here are a few more suggestions. Prices quoted do not include tax, tip or beverages unless otherwise noted. Reservations are essential.

At Xiomara in Pasadena, first seatings are at 6, 6:30 and 7 p.m. and feature the regular menu and specials, but customers must be out by 9 p.m. Second seating runs from 9 on with a prix-fixe menu that includes, among other dishes, Patrick Healy's foie gras with Port aspic, divers' scallops with white truffles, Dover sole with crab mashed potatoes, and duck-fried steak. A jazz trio will play. Second seating, $95 per person.

* Xiomara, 69 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, (818) 796-2520.

L'Orangerie offers two seatings and prix-fixe menus specially created by chef Gilles Epie that include such dishes as marinated lobster with shellfish oil, venison with black pepper sauce and squab wrapped in cabbage with black truffles. The first seating is from 6 to 9 p.m. and includes a choice of appetizer, entree and dessert for $110 per person. The second seating, from 9 p.m. on, includes a choice of appetizer, fish, meat and dessert, and live Brazilian band music by Rique Pantoja, for $175 per person.

* L'Orangerie, 903 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 652-9770.

Remi, on the Third Street Promenade, is offering a variety of prix-fixe menus at 5:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. seatings. The menus will feature Venetian specialties such as Risotto allo Champagne or roast goose with stuffing and soft polenta. Marl Young, former pianist for "The Lucy Show," will entertain with songs from the '40s and '50s and there will be a Champagne toast, hats and noise-makers at midnight for $40 to $80 per person, depending on seating and menu.

* Remi, 1451 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, (310) 393-6545.

On New Year's Day, RJ's the Rib Joint in Beverly Hills will have a pajama party. Instructions: "Wear your best PJ's to RJ's for brunch and receive a gift certificate equal to the amount of your food purchase."

* RJ's the Rib Joint, 252 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 274-7427.

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