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Barrio Fiesta Address:
3687 San Fernando Road
Los Angeles
(818) 244-8502
2000 Tue -Sun

Barrio Fiesta, eh? Tamalitos, cerveza and norteno music, right?

Nope. The Glendale restaurant Barrio Fiesta is purely Filipino. It manages a party-like atmosphere with no music and nothing to drink but tropical fruit juices, and the closest you'll get to a tamalito there is deep-fried wonton sausage rolls (lumpia Shanghai).

It's located right where Glendale Boulevard dead-ends southbound into San Fernando Road, which creates an oddball situation when you leave the parking lot. You can make a left turn onto San Fernando Road as long as the light's green -- only there's no traffic light facing you. You have to watch for the lights on San Fernando to turn red.

As for entering the parking lot, you do that through a driveway along the north side of the place. Then walk back down the driveway to get to the front door. Inside, you'll find Barrio Fiesta larger than you might've expected from the inconspicuous exterior, and fairly stylish, all bamboo, rattan and wood painted pale green. * * *

The menu runs about 80 items and includes dishes unique to this restaurant. One is kenchi steak: thin slices of beef served in mushroom sauce topped with carrots, green beans and French fries. This is not Franco-Filipino fusion cuisine -- the meat is not steak but braised beef knuckle. The Filipino taste is for strong, earthy flavors, and for rather oily sauces.

There are only a few appetizers, but you could start a meal with lumpia Shanghai (listed among the entrees) or lightly breaded calamari (crispy pusit) served with a vinegar dipping sauce.

Then there's a full page of seafood prepared in various ways: stewed with sauce (coconut milk, sweet-sour sauce, soy-based adobo sauce), made into a sort of ceviche (kilawin), fried. Pritong hito is a whole fried catfish, deeply gashed, which makes the meat easy to pick out with a fork. It comes with vinegar and an interesting salad that looks like coleslaw but tastes of fresh ginger.

Crispy pata is a pork leg -- two whole joints of the leg -- deep-fried until the skin is beautifully crisp. The meat itself has a sweetish, gamy flavor, much improved by the haunting vinegar-soy dipping sauce. In the same vein, lechon kawali is chunks of pork, together with the skin, deep-fried to make something like carnitas mixed with crackling. It's rather a one-note dish, but it comes with a pleasant, mildly sweet bean sauce.

Even an unadventurous eater could like kaldereta. It's basically a dark reddish peanut sauce faintly scented with fish sauce; think of a meatier cousin of the Thai satay sauce. Kaldereta is traditionally made with goat meat (kamping), but you can also get it with beef (baka), which means a mixture of short ribs and oxtail. You'll also find mild peppers and a chunk of waxy potato floating around in the rich gravy. This is a rich, slurpy, surpassingly meaty dish. Rice is a la carte here, as at a Chinese restaurant, and kaldereta is particularly good with garlic rice, speckled with aromatic toasted garlic.

Kare kare is basically chunks of beef, oxtail and tripe in a sweeter peanut butter sauce of a faintly alarming yellowish hue, served in a sort of pottery chafing dish. If you think the sauce has an arresting color, check out the relish that goes with it: It's bagoong, a fermented shrimp sauce; a harmless fungus turns it a dark, saturated purple. As you might expect, it has a somewhat rank flavor, but you're not supposed to eat it by the spoonful, any more than you're supposed to drink Worcestershire sauce. Like Worcestershire, bagoong does improve the kare kare.

This is not the last of purple food here. Two of the best desserts come in shades you might never expect to see in something edible. Halaya ube (often spelled halea ubi) is a pudding-like sweetmeat (it at first looks like a scoop of ice cream) made from ubi, the indigenous purple-fleshed yam. It has a pleasant, mild flavor, a bit like yam with a faint earthy overtone. "Like Play-doh," said one of my guests, but she might have been swayed by the color.

Halo-halo is basically a sundae made from red beans and chick peas, topped with sweetened milk and shaved ice. If you order the special halo-halo, it's topped with a scoop of ubi ice cream of a more delicate, pastel purple than the halaya ube. And for the final fiesta touch, it's topped with crunchy puffed rice. -- Charles Perry, Times Staff Writer

Prices: Dinner for two, $27 to $53
What to Get: Crispy pusit, pritong hito, kare kare, kaldereta
with beef, halaya ube, special halo-halo.
No alcohol.
All major credit cards.