This is Los Angeles' Peruvian moment, an embrace of Andean flavors prophesied long ago by food futurists who proclaimed the cuisine to be the next big thing. There have always been pockets of our sprawling geography where ceviche is scattered with giant kernels of corn and jugs of chicha morada stain teeth a pleasant purple. But this is a citywide shift in culinary consciousness.
It coalesced at Mo-Chica. Ricardo Zarate's restaurant reshaped the notions of Peruvian food with sushi-grade fish mounded in a tart puddle of citrus, and quinoa cut with crème fraîche and stirred just until it resembled risotto. Now that mantle of invention is being carried forth by Chimú, a downtown walk-up where beef hearts share a salad with shaved apples and lamb belly bastes in a cilantro-black beer reduction.
Chimú operates from a takeout window in Grand Central Market's outer courtyard, a lunchtime amphitheater where all the city's social strata converge. It's that centrality that landed Mario Alberto (formerly of Lazy Ox Canteen and Mo-Chica) and Jason Michaud (owner of Silver Lake's Local) here in the shadow of the funicular Angels Flight.
Chalkboard menus allow just the right amount of transience. A Bibb lettuce salad brightened by pickled fennel and tossed in a vinaigrette of huacatay (a Peruvian herb wild with tastes of tarragon and mint) exists only for a day. Come again and there's chaufa, fried rice fattened with crunchy chicharrones and enlivened with aji panca, a mild crimson chile.
Trigo mote is a bit more permanent — barley dotted with a brunoise of pickled rhubarb, equally minuscule lumps of feta and a few carefully extracted wedges of tangelo. Plaits of tarragon, cilantro, dill and red onion are woven throughout. It's the kind of satisfying salad every picnic demands.
Chimú's ceviche is a pelagic pleasure. The day's fish (recently, pristine barracuda) is soused in sharply citric leche de tigre, scattered with toasted corn and accompanied by supple hunks of sweet potato. The tiradito is simpler: sheer ribbons of fish or glistening orange uni draped over a garden of seaweed.
There's the requisite pollo a la brasa — Jidori chicken spun on a rotisserie until it shines like patent leather — but all attention is instead on the chancho, thick slabs of pork belly fried until its skin bubbles and pops and its fat melts into a self-basting state of near liquescence. Each piece is slicked with huacatay aioli and laid on a bed of barley and tomato confit. Even as pork belly continues to crop up on nearly every menu within city limits, Chimú's treatment is one of the best.
The restaurant often goes with its gut. Seco de cordero, for example, typically calls for lamb shoulder or shank to be steeped in an herb-laced stew, the meat emerging thoroughly suffused with cilantro. Here, it's lamb belly instead, a forgiving piece of meat that peels apart in gamy layers of fat and flesh. Scattered above and below it are starchy canary beans, plump peas, wisps of red onion and radishes shaved so thin they threaten to dissolve into the cilantro-black beer sauce that's showered over it all.
The estofado de lengua is the dish not to miss. There's palpable fear among some who hear its description, as if ordering the beef tongue stew would be too beastly a break from the First World diet. But there's nothing intimidating about it — the tongue is broken down into perfect little cubes, tender blocks of meat so soft they could be crushed between your fingers, interspersed with sweet gushes of a baby tomato and the earthy balance of accompanying lentils.
Chimú is the restaurant meant for this moment, an almost illusory place where flavors are sometimes fleeting. But these are dishes that endure, instant memories of time and place and taste that ultimately speak as much of Los Angeles as they do of Lima.
Location: 324 S. Hill St., Los Angeles, (213) 625-1097.
Price: Appetizers and salads, $9 to $12; entrees, $10 to $13.
Details: Open daily 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Free lot parking with validation. Credit cards accepted.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times