Alain Ruelens has a hit on his hands in Spuds Cafe in Woodland Hills, where he serves friets, a very special kind of fried potato and the favorite food of Belgium.
Ruelens opened Spuds in December, having spent some two months more than he expected in navigating the permits-and-inspections obstacle course of the City of Angels--an object lesson in the way things really work in the land of opportunity.
But Ruelens didn't give up. He immigrated to Southern California from Belgium last year because he liked the weather and thought that people in the San Fernando Valley might enjoy a crisp fried potato not drenched in oil.
His determination gives those who enjoy the inventive restaurant scene in the Valley a new place to go and, in his friets, a food that is brand-new to this part of the world.
"I'm trying to do the same thing here that my family has done in Belgium for four generations," Ruelens says. "Since 1937, my great-grandfather and my grandfather and father have made fried potatoes in the town of Aalst in Belgium.
"I have friends here in Los Angeles, and when I came to visit three or four years ago, I said to myself, 'Why don't I come here myself and try to cook them here?' So I did."
Working out of a tiny wagon, Ruelens' great-grandfather traveled with a circus in Belgium in the early years of this century, making and selling fried potatoes using a method dating from the 17th century. His grandfather and father cooked friets in restaurants after World War II ended in 1945.
Like them, Ruelens uses a high-quality oil and a special imported deep fryer that fries the potatoes twice and makes them crisp but not oily. The result is nothing like the French fry you get from any fast-food joint.
In Belgium, they dip les friets into a mayonnaise-like sauce, so Ruelens offers his potatoes Belgian-style with mayonnaise or with tartar sauce, tomatoes and onions, bleu cheese, barbecue sauce, garlic and even a spicy peanut sauce. Prices max out at $3.50.
You can also have a "vertical" chicken (that is, chicken roasted on a vertical skewer), a beef- or chicken-breast burger, a chicken sandwich, an Italian-style sandwich with mushrooms, a bowl of chili or a bowl of soup. A whole chicken costs $9.75, but everything else goes for $4.50, tops.
Open for lunch and dinner seven days a week, Spuds Cafe seats 40, but you can order takeout, of course. It is at 21833 Ventura Blvd., on the northeast corner of Topanga Canyon and Ventura Boulevards in Woodland Hills, (818) 992-7783.
Chef Andre Guerrero unveiled his new menu at Prezzo Restaurant last week, and as you might expect, it reflects his lifelong passion for the cooking of the peoples of the Pacific Rim.
Guerrero built a big following when he worked the kitchen at Alice's Restaurant in Malibu and later when he ran his own place, Duet, in Glendale. More recently, he helped get Signature Grill, a new place in Sherman Oaks, up and running.
Now he runs the kitchen at Prezzo, John Makhani's place in Sherman Oaks, and the chances are good that before long he will bring change to two other places Makhani owns, Villa Piacere in Woodland Hills and Barefoot in Hollywood.
So what are some of the dishes on Guerrero's new menu at Prezzo: Spaghetti with Manila clams, in a white wine sauce; spaghetti with ahi tuna in a sauce of tomatoes, capers and seasoned bread crumbs; a saffron risotto with shrimp, scallops, Manila clams and peppers; and roasted Alaskan cod in a glaze of balsamic vinegar and red wine.
Prices generally run under $15. You can also choose among nine salads at prices ranging to $10, and among half a dozen pizzas in the same price range.
Best of all, for dessert you can have a dish of Dandy Don's Gourmet Ice Cream, made by Don Whittemore of Van Nuys.
Prezzo is at 13625 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 905-8400.
* Juan Hovey writes about the restaurant scene in the San Fernando Valley and outlying points. He may be reached at (805) 492-7909 or fax (805) 492-5139 or via e-mail at jhoveygte.net