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RESTAURANT REVIEW : El Silencio’s Seafood Conveys Rich Essence of the Ocean’s Flavor

When I was 12, my family and our neighbors, the Garcias, went to Guaymas, Mexico. We camped on the bay and bought fresh fish, shrimp and turtle meat from a dock within walking distance of our tents. One night, Mrs. Garcia prepared a seafood stew, and sent me to the beach to fetch a container of seawater, a cupful of which she added to the kettle. It was not, as one would think, too salty; nor was it unhealthy--I’m living proof of that. Rather, it was a perfect God-given seasoning and one of my most enduring, evocative flavor memories.

Recently, a bowl of parihuela at El Silencio Restaurant took me right back to Guaymas Bay. I clearly recalled wading into the water with a Tupperware container, the silhouette of the desert mountains across the bay, the smell and sting and taste of the sea and my adolescent reluctance to eat seawater, even well-boiled seawater. I doubt that the people at El Silencio are pouring cupfuls of the Pacific into stockpots, but the wonderfully concentrated broth--chock-full of fish, shrimp, clams, squid, scallops and octopus--captures that same intense, rich essence of ocean.

El Silencio is a South American seafood restaurant and cevicheria in a mini-mall at Burbank Boulevard and Hazeltine Avenue in Van Nuys, and every time I go there, its signs aren’t lit, its blinds are pulled--I always fear it’s closed. But just as I’m sure I’ve driven all the way there for naught, a TV flickers through the blinds, and invariably, I find that business is thriving within.

We may find the large round table by the door full of middle-aged men drinking wine and speaking a German-inflected Spanish, or young California industry-types drinking Peruvian Pilsener and arguing aesthetics. Spanish historias (soap operas) play soundlessly on the TV; Spanish songs issue from speakers and large, enticing color photographs of El Silencio, the Peruvian beach, hang on the walls. The white and royal blue color scheme is handsome, refreshing, and somehow pleasantly foreign--oddly, El Silencio reminds me of a New Orleans oyster bar. As one companion says, “I completely forget we’re in a Van Nuys mini-mall.”

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Our waitress is friendly, informative and decisive, which is a big help to wafflers like me who want to try everything on the menu. Inca Cola may be an authentic Peruvian soft drink, she says, but it tastes like bubble gum and she can’t really recommend it. Her fish of choice is the sudado , a steamed fish. “It’s prepared without oil, so it’s not too fattening,” she says. Since she’s a paragon of slimness, we believe her. For those in the group who prefer garlic to low fat considerations, she recommends the camarones al ajo ; the heat lovers among us are pitched the picantes camarones.

As we order, plates heaped with rice, squid and shrimp sail past. I start getting that warm, comfortable, anticipatory feeling that I’m about to get something good to eat.

El Silencio proclaims its ceviche the best in the San Fernando Valley, and I believe that this is not self-promotion but a bald admission of the truth. The ceviche de pescado is firm, lemon-marinated fish, the ceviche El Silencio is marinated shellfish (shrimp, clams, squid, scallops, octopus), and the ceviche mixto is a combination of the two. They’re all juicy and fearlessly, gloriously seasoned--spicy enough to set a fire in the mouth and refreshing enough to quench the burn. The morsels of octopus are so tender and creamy, it should be illegal to eat the eight-armed sea beast prepared in any other fashion.

Other appetizers include tamal con salsa criolla , which is made by one of the cooks’ mothers. Served with wonderful pickled onions, this unusual tamale’s dense masa holds chunks of pork, raisins and hard-boiled egg and occasions speculation about the possible existence of “good cook” genes. The shrimp cocktail may look like lumpy thousand island soup, but the shrimp--fresh, bursting with sweetness and still warm from the pan--is complemented rather than overwhelmed by what is actually a pretty good remoulade-style sauce.

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Sudado El Silencio is a hefty slab of steamed fish topped with a seafood sauce made of shrimp, squid, octopus, scallops and clam. The chaufa de mariscos is a plate of crunchy, deep-fried squid, fish, shrimp, and octopus (which grows downright bouncy when exposed to hot oil). Tallarin saltado de mariscos is spaghetti in an oceanic sauce of shrimp, squid, octopus, scallops and clam. Taken individually, these plates are each delicious, satisfying, redolent of the sea; but diners who want to share a variety of tastes and ingredients should order carefully, or they’ll end up repeatedly, as we did, with this same mix of mariscos.

Shrimp lovers and even those who have a more platonic relationship with the crustacean can’t go wrong with either camarones picante (spicy) or al ajo (with garlic), two red-sauced shrimp dishes cooked with potatoes.

Hard-core carnivores along for the company or the music will find a small selection of beef dishes. While nowhere near as compelling as the seafood, the bisteck ence encebollado serves as an acceptable, if not exciting, alternative.

Desserts include various carmel custard-filled cookies and a heavy, sweet, darkly carmelized flan.

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The food, however, is not the only source of delight and surprise at El Silencio. On a Friday night, we’re eating away, when who should come in but Los Incas, a four-piece Peruvian band. Los Incas performs a set of haunting Peruvian folk songs, the melodies played on a pan flute, and then a set of pop tunes. For both sets, percussion is played on a cow-skin drum and/or the wooden boxes the members sit on. Soon enough, we’re not in a pleasant, quiet little mini-mall ethnic restaurant, but in a crowded, exuberant Peruvian nightclub--at any rate, we’re definitely not in Van Nuys as we have always previously known it.

El Silencio Restaurant, 14111 Burbank Boulevard, Van Nuys, (818) 997-9412. Open noon-4 p.m. and 6-10 p.m. Wednesday through Monday. Closed Tuesdays. Beer and wine. American Express only. Dinner for two, food only, $16-$30.


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