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Hidden treasure: Peruvian restaurants in Southern California
Ricardo Zarate remembers reading a 2004 article in the Economist magazine predicting that Peruvian cuisine was the Next Big Thing. A Peruvian who had studied at a culinary college in Peru, then at Westminster Culinary College in England, he was cooking in a Japanese restaurant in London. The moment he read the article, he knew it was right: Peruvian was the next big thing, and he wanted, desperately, to cook Peruvian in his own restaurant. He started dreaming and moved to L.A. in 2007.
This spring, Zarate opened Mo-Chica in the Mercado La Paloma, a Mexican marketplace, at least partly because there was no Perutown in Los Angeles.
"I've been in Los Angeles for two years, and I still don't know where the Peruvian community is," Zarate says jokingly.
The Peruvian community in Los Angeles is large but scattered, and Peruvian restaurants are mostly solitary creatures, with none of the visible concentration of Koreatown or Thai Town. Most of them are hidden too: in the back corners of strip malls, behind 7-Elevens and Radio Shacks, on anonymous stretches of streets in the outer reaches of the San Fernando Valley. This may be why a lot of Angelenos have no idea that they're surrounded by fantastic Peruvian food.
The menus are similar to one another: a march of saltados, fried rice dishes, ceviches and Latin soups. And potato dishes, lots of potato dishes. Because Peruvian food is inherently multicultural, there's something for any eater to relate to. There are Chinese ingredients, Japanese techniques, African flavors, laid over a foundation of Latino and Andean cooking. Peruvian food might be the only cuisine that combines cheese, nuts, soy sauce, cilantro and fried plantain all in the same bite.
But Peruvian is a nuanced cuisine, and every dish bears the unmistakable mark of its master -- whether it's beefy anticuchos (grilled skewers) in Norwalk at Anticucheria Danessi or the crisp-succulent roasted chicken at Bonano's in Northridge.
Traditional, and not
The two new, strikingly great Peruvian restaurants in Los Angeles are Mo-Chica and Puro Sabor. One-year-old Puro Sabor is the proud upholder of traditional cooking, and Mo-Chica is the first major step in the direction of the new.
Mo-Chica's Zarate is a professionally trained innovator, serving carefully plated food with distinct Japanese touches -- varnished wooden serving trays, pristine white tableware, carefully arranged piles of fresh pickles. (Zarate formerly was chef at Zu Robata in West Los Angeles.)
His aji de gallina -- shredded chicken and walnuts in yellow sauce -- is subtle, aromatic and sensuously pleasing. The sauce is made from delicate aji amarillo and bread crumbs; at the bottom of the bowl are a few slices of perfectly boiled potato, and on top, a few slices of hard-boiled egg. It's visually satisfying too: white bowl, pale yellow sauce, hard-boiled egg whites, yellow yolks, arranged in beautiful concentric circles. It's sunny, creamy and gently warming.
Here, seco de cordero is about as deep and lovely a stew as you can find. The center is a large piece of tender lamb shank; the broth is black beer and cilantro, simmered for hours with the lamb. The stew is full of little tidbits: Brown canario beans are savory and just soft; green peas are firm and grainy; carrot shreds are melted almost into nothingness. And there's a sprinkle of crackling cancha -- crunchy, charred kernels of corn.
Juana Paz, the chef and part-owner of Puro Sabor, got into cooking the old-school way. "My mom was a terrible cook," says her daughter, Johanna Santolalla, laughing. "But she learned to cook because of us kids. We'd go over to Grandma's house, and then come back and complain that mom's food was so terrible. So Mom went to Grandma and learned. And then we stopped going to Grandma's."
Paz's ocopa -- boiled potato in delicate, creamy green sauce made with walnuts, chiles and herbs -- is killer. But don't leave without eating the quintessential Puro Sabor dish, jalea de mariscos: a massive platter of fried fish, topped with an enormous amount of fried squid, and topped again with fried shrimp and fried mussels, then surrounded by a ring of soft fried plantains and crispy fried yucca and garnished with slices of freshly pickled red onions.
Both restaurants serve fantastic ceviche, and each is utterly expressive of their respective styles. Mo-Chica's version -- with his creamy leche de tigre sauce and extras including Japanese pickled seaweed -- is one profound, complex mouthful.
Puro Sabor's version is stripped-down and crystal clear -- a pile of raw seafood marinated in lime and topped with pickled red onions, with a few condiments on the side -- boiled corn, toasted corn, a bit of sweet potato, a bit of boiled potato. The lime marinade intensifies the experience of raw fish.
The common chile
But there is one thing that ties Peruvian cuisine together. "I'm going to tell you a secret," says Zarate. "The base of Peruvian cooking, the most important thing, is aji, what we call chile." A single species of chile supplies the core flavor of Peruvian food, in two forms: Young and fresh, it is aji amarillo -- yellow chile. Ripe and dried, it is aji panca -- red chile. Virtually every Peruvian dish starts with variations of the same base: aderezo, a sauté of aji, onions and garlic.
The beloved sauces of Peru are mostly aji-based. Aji verde, the green sauce that shows up with every Peruvian meal in Los Angeles, is made from aji amarillo and green herbs.
The recipe varies widely from place to place; it may involve cilantro, basil or Peruvian black mint, called huacatay. Paz's version at Puro Sabor involves lots of cilantro and jalapeno, for brilliance and zing. Zarate's makes his with peanuts, for depth.
As good as they are, Mo-Chica and Puro Sabor are just the tip of the Peruvian restaurant iceberg in Southern California.
For hardcore carnivores, there's Anticucheria Danessi. The center of the Danessi experience is beef heart skewers, an unreservedly awesome trip into carnivore wonderland. Anticuchos de corazon are tangy, peppery and wildly beefy. Other organ meat anticuchos are worth trying too, particularly the tripe varieties.
They serve an excellent chicha morada -- an ultra-refreshing drink that's essentially purple corn tea, spiked with cloves, cinnamon and fruit. But if you're really lucky, Danessi will have a jug of homemade chicha jugo -- a spiced, yeasty drink of fermented purple corn. It's like regular chicha morada crossed with Belgian beer.
Los Angeles' favorite Peruvian restaurants may be wood-fired chicken places; tons of these joints dot the city, the Valley and the South Bay. The best-known is the Koreatown branch of Pollo a la Brasa, a tiny shack surrounded by cords of hardwood, perpetually pumping out clouds of honest wood smoke and the scent of roasting chicken. Here, plates of finger-licking, juice-dripping, chile-marinated, wildly smoky chicken are accompanied by some pretty spectacular fries.
Also try Super Pollo, a tiny corner strip mall denizen in Van Nuys. The brining process here results in some of the best chicken skin in town -- juicy, perfectly crisp and peppery.
But the grand champion of Peruvian chicken may be Northridge's Bonano's. Its birds have deep, intensified chicken flavor, perfectly balanced marinade, excellent crispy skin and dense, moist meat. The aji verde is slightly tuned down so as not to interfere with the concentrated chicken flavor.
Perhaps the most charming aji verde in Los Angeles is at Inti. Inti is almost invisible -- a tiny doorway wedged into the corner of yet another anonymous Hollywood strip mall. Inside, the restaurant is surprisingly spacious and covered with Peruvian textiles; the food is generous, homey. Their aji verde is super -- a handmade, nutty, searingly bright version that's endearingly coarse.
It's best with the dish that is Inti's heart and soul: arroz chaufa -- Peruvian fried rice. Their arroz chaufa with seafood is good; their version with slightly crisped, pan-fried chicken chunks is great; and their version with intense, seared, almost jerky-like beef is fantastic. Best of all is if you can talk them into making arroz chaufa with all of the above, then douse it with aji verde.
Gaston Acurio, the premier Peruvian chef who is planning on opening restaurants in L.A., may be Peru's most famous chef. But others already here are finally getting some attention. Since Paz opened Puro Sabor last year, she's been shocked by how many people, especially non-Peruvians, have fallen in love with her cooking.
"People write about us on the Internet," Santolalla says. When Santolalla showed her mother some Chowhound reviews that customers left behind, "she was so proud, so happy, that people loved her cooking."
"She comes from a really small town in Arequipa" in southern Peru, Santolalla says. "It's small and really poor. But there's a town website, and for months, they put her on the front page. They're so proud of her -- all these people in Los Angeles, loving her food. They think, because of all this, she's really made it."