History and Tomato Sauce

Migration creates strange culinary hybrids. China and Vietnam, never the best of friends, get equal billing on Westminster menus. Was it some Red-menace conspiracy that resulted in all the offbeat Chinese-Cuban restaurants that popped up around New York in the 1970s? Today's American cooking has Franco-Asian influences all over it. Even the most authentic of Guatemalan restaurants offers hamburgers. And who can forget the kosher burrito?

One of the more rewarding culture combos is found in Italian-South American cooking. Italians—always looking for adventure and new food sources—journeyed across the Atlantic to the fishing ports and farms of South America, many ending up in Argentina. In the 1980s, Los Angeles boasted a handful of Italian-Argentine restaurants—our favorite was in a far-flung Koreatown neighborhood where we ordered pasta and mixed grills of blood sausage, kidneys, liver and other charred parts of cow.

By the looks of the menu at Little Joe, you would guess the Italians must have made it next door to Chile as well. Like Luigi's, Little Joe is a common restaurant moniker. There was a Little Joe in LA's Chinatown, and San Francisco is dotted with Little Joes and derivations. This Little Joe is really Jose, and at his place, you can make a meal of pizza and ceviche—if you have the stomach for it. Your dining partner can have veal cacciatore while you enjoy arrollado, sliced rolled pork served cold in the Chilean style.

Chilean-born Jose Altamirano fell into the Italian culture when in 1983, he bought this location, formerly Two Guys From Italy, and began working Chilean dishes into the menu. Well-worn, the space has the smell of history and tomato sauce. Few concessions have been made to contemporary taste in dcor. A mural, charming in its primitive qualities, pictures an island grotto. Some 20 flags, presumably from South America and Central America, make a neat chevron across the ceiling. A 32-inch TV, cold and silent on our last visit, keeps its black eye on the back dining room.

Joe makes the rounds of the room himself as a synthesized version of Volare, and Andean flute music hovers in the room. Along with Italian specialties, the menu contains deep-fried congrio, the fish served up and down South America's West Coast, along with Chilean tamales (humita) and a Chilean salad of potatoes, cheese and garlic. Joe's most satisfying dish is pastel de choclo, a sort of Chilean pot pie made of coarse ground corn and stuffed with beef, onions, olives, raisins and a hard-boiled egg, topped with a candied cherry like a nipple. Slightly sweet, this is the kind of hearty, nourishing dish that can have a sedative effect on the foulest of moods.

Our last meal at Little Joe skipped from Chile to southern Italy, starting with a plump, neatly creased empanada stuffed with stewed vegetables and served with a simple salsa. Then came cannelloni, maybe the biggest we've ever seen, probably using the same dough as that crispy empanada, but this time baked soft and stuffed with spiced, chopped beef and bits of spinach, all topped with browned cheese and ladled with a peppery marinara as earthy as any homemade sauce we've enjoyed. Again, "hearty" is the operational word, and we could barely finish one of the beef-bloated pair. Chilean wines rule the list here, but we went for the culture clash of made-in-America, San Antonio-label Chianti, an easy drinker. With the first sip, everything—despite a sea's worth of difference—came together perfectly.

Little Joe Restaurant, located at 1535 Chapman Ave., Orange, is open for lunch, Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; and for dinner; Sun.-Thurs., 5-9:30 p.m. & Fri.-Sat. 5-10:30 p.m. (714) 750-0123. Dinner for two, $15-$40, food only. Full Bar. AmEx, Discover, MC and Visa accepted.


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