A thick, juicy slab of organic chicken, speckled with a dusting of Parmigiano-Reggiano, sits between crunchy slices of artisan bread in the suprema di pollo panino at the Venezuelan Churros Calientes in West Los Angeles. A veneer of whisper-light breading seals in the meat's moisture. And the thin schmear of dense, house-made tomato sauce that punches up the flavors is so concentrated it almost tastes sun-dried.
Chicken Parmigiano panini may sound like a been-there, done-that lunch item, but this one — and just about everything on the small cafe's menu — has 50 years of restaurant experience behind it. Owner Sandro Finocchio grew up in his family's Caracas Italian restaurant and sought advice from his father as he began to develop recipes for his Westside eatery. And while the to-die-for churros are the main attractions here, the organic-leaning menu is more than worth a perusal.
Fried to order, Finocchio's churros emerge steaming from their fresh oil bath, crunchy, chewy and slightly puffy. The long, slender fritters, just lightly sweetened, bear little resemblance to the run-of-the-mill pretenders made from a mix by many doughnut shops or amusement park vendors. And Churros Calientes serves them with deserved reverence and pomp in a paper-lined silver-tone basket. They're the stars of churrodom, as distinctive as Ludo's fried chicken or Sherry Yard's kaiserschmarrn.
Like many artisanal foodstuffs, these churros have brought purists out of the woodwork — the same sort of folks who obsess over the thickness of hot dog casings or the type of lard in a pie crust. It's not unusual to hear someone in the chic but tiny room holding forth on how these churros compare so favorably to the ones from their favorite little churrería back in Madrid or Montevideo, Uruguay.
In true Spanish tradition you can order your churros with a tiny cup of chocolate for dipping. Rich and bittersweet, it's a fusion of melted chocolate and cocoa that clings like crème anglaise to the churros' crenellated ridges and flows in little rivulets in its shallow channels.
Stuffed churros are here too. The size of large carrots, they're filled with silky ribbons of house-made guava or strawberry purée or with dulce de leche or chocolate sauce. These sophisticated versions of jelly doughnuts aren't as over the top as they may sound; the fillings' moderate sweetness heightens but doesn't overwhelm the churro.
The narrow cafe just next door to Laemmle's Royal Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard may be small, but a whimsical sensibility permeates the room. Faux chocolate handprints randomly placed on the wall playfully remind us of the churro-dipped-in-hot-chocolate tradition. Exposed brick lends a loft-like feel to the room with its dark wood coffee bar and cozy interior tables. Euro-look rattan-like chairs and tables outside provide more seating options.
A juicer squeezes fresh mango or orange juice and the Venezuelan favorite called "tres en uno" — beet, orange and carrot juices deliciously mixed. Should you want a light meal before diving into the churros, the soups and salads are just satisfying enough to leave you still hungering for an order of dessert. A rustic purée of butternut squash holds squash chunks, potato and tiny bits of Swiss chard set off with hot red pepper. A bocadillo of tortilla Española, crispy, eggy with a touch of onion, replicates the Spanish classic. And mushrooms in a port wine reduction over a good piece of filet mignon fill a panino or come plated with salad.
If the choices seem an illogical culinary mix, remember, you're in Venezuela now, the former Spanish colony to which Finocchio's Italian father immigrated decades ago and a place where churrerías and street-side kiosks provide fresh churros at every turn.
If Finocchio, a.k.a. Finoglio, looks familiar, maybe you've spotted him in a magazine modeling or acting in a Spanish-language soap opera or (should you be Venezuelan) seen his former television talk show. But currently his heart belongs to Churros Calientes.
11521 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles; (424) 248-3890.
Churros, $3 to 3.75; churros with cup of chocolate, $5; soups, $5 to $7; salads, $6 to $9.50; sandwiches and daily specials, $8 to $12.
Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday. Credit cards. No alcohol. Metered lot and street parking. Evening parking free in Bank of America lot.