Puro sabor -- Spanish for pure, unadulterated flavor -- is the name of a sprightly 7-month-old Peruvian restaurant on Van Nuys Boulevard. The kitchen lives up to the promise of its moniker, sending out plates that are all about puro saborpuro sabor -- nothing architectural or flamboyant, no foam or bouncy gelée -- just classic Peruvian favorites with powerfully seductive tastes.
This becomes clear with your first order of ceviche de pescado. Cubes of pristinely fresh fish firmed up with a gentle kiss of citrus and chile retain a delicate marine essence. Counterpoints to the heat and tartness are a side of perfectly al dente sweet potato and puffy giant corn kernels.
The bright purple corn-based punch, chicha morada, served in most Peruvian places, is a different animal here: Chef Juana Paz passes on the popular and convenient Kool-Aid-style mix for her own delicious blend of spices and juice to flavor the boiled corn water.
The restaurant brightens up its nondescript block with a cheery red sign and smart logo of an Incan cook. Sitting across from Q Bargain Swap Meet around the corner from the utilitarian Elks club building, the rejuvenated former taco shop welcomes patrons with a spotless interior, cloth-covered tables and a sophisticated color scheme of hunter green and pale peach.
Before Puro Sabor's opening, Paz had already collected a loyal following from her six-year tenure at another Peruvian spot, Las Quenas. A former bank teller and accountant in Peru, she started out as a dishwasher and cook's assistant soon after arriving in L.A., eventually working her way up to chef and manager. Her daughter, Johanna Santolalla, who occasionally helps out waiting tables, says Paz was so dedicated to the idea of coming to the States that she enrolled her kids in English classes in Peru long before she acquired immigration papers.
Her own boss
MANAGING A restaurant was a great way to learn the ins and outs of the business. But Paz wanted to cook and have complete control of a kitchen -- particularly over the selection and quality of ingredients -- and so with two partners she finally struck out on her own.
Every detail of the food seems to have passed the rigorous Paz test. The aji -- that mint-green condiment in a plastic squirt bottle -- is her carefully developed blend of the Peruvian black mint, huacatay, and Peruvian yellow chiles swirled together with milk and fresh cheese -- blazing heat and creaminess in well-calibrated balance.
The Peruvian love for seafood has a lot to do with its long dramatic coastline and proximity to the Humboldt and El Niño currents. No surprise then that seafood abounds at Puro Sabor: hot, cold, fried, dosed with cream or enlivened with peppery spices -- ready to take your palate on a wild ride.
Parihuela, South America's answer to bouillabaisse, a clear, spicy broth crowded with lightly cooked shrimp, octopus, squid and delicate fish chunks, will haunt any seafood lover's dreams. In the ambrosial chupe de camarones, Peru's creamy national chowder, float firm, lightly cooked shrimp and a gently poached egg. Jalea, a textural phenomenon, combines a mountain of deep-fried calamari, shrimp and other shellfish atop slabs of grilled snapper or perch.
Beyond the sea
BUT Puro Sabor's menu isn't only about fish. Paz's longtime customers content themselves with their favorite Criollo foods -- dishes fused from the country's immigrant culinary traditions. Many are daily specials written on a board. You might find Spanish-influenced aji de gallina, shredded chicken in velvety ground almond sauce spiked with a subtle touch of yellow chile; carapulcra, braised lean pork chunks cooked with the Andean-style dried potatoes, papas secas, that you would swear were meat, or secco de chivo, a long-simmered, herb-rich stew of kid meat reminiscent of a Basque grandma's Sunday dinner.
As is usually seen in Peruvian cafes, the menu lists a few Chinese-Peruvian dishes and pastas. Nicely made as they are, they're the least interesting of the Peruvian repertoire. One exception is lomo a lo macho, a pan-seared rib-eye topped with gently sautéed varied seafood.
On weekends, Puro Sabor serves Peruvian-style breakfasts. These meaty, farmhand-style repasts are built around steaks, eggs and tacu tacu, the Afro-Peruvian mash-up of seasoned rice and beans.
The sweetest spot is held by picarones, melt-in-the-mouth pumpkin doughnuts that resemble tempura-light funnel cakes. Drizzled with syrup made from dark, earthy pilloncillo sugar, the dessert exemplifies yet again why Puro Sabor is so apt as the restaurant's name.
Puro Sabor Peruvian Food Location: 6366 Van Nuys Blvd., Van Nuys, (818) 908-0818. Price: Appetizers and salads, $3.95 to $10.50; entrees, $9.95 to $19.95. Best dishes: ceviches; chupe de camarones, parihuela, picarones. Details: Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Lot parking behind the restaurant. Visa and Mastercard. No alcohol.