Comida Peruana : Meat and potatoes . . . and fish, fowl and pasta . . .
A little more than five years ago, there were a number of Peruvian restaurants clustered around Melrose and Vermont. Their clientele, primarily a Peruvian one, included a smattering of adventurous tasters who raved about the food.
Most of these places have vanished, but you can still get a wonderful “ comida Peruana “ in Los Angeles. New Peruvian restaurants have surfaced in Torrance, Lawndale, South Gate and the San Fernando Valley.
If you’ve never tasted Peruvian food, few dishes illustrate its diverse influences like a plate of lomo saltado. It’s an East-West sort of dish, a Chinese-style stir-fry of garlicky beef with tomatoes and French fries mixed into it. On the side comes a treacherous green hot sauce--an Incan-inspired puree of chile, simply called aji (hot pepper).
You might think such a mix sounds terribly exotic but Peruvian food can be reassuringly familiar. When the Indians introduced the Spanish to potatoes and tomatoes, the Spanish taught the Indians to make cheese and the result was magical: papas huancaina , boiled potatoes blanketed in a creamy cheese sauce with a subtle kick of chile, and picante de mariscos , a peppery stew of cubed potatoes and shellfish in tomato sauce. The Chinese element crept in after the turn of the century when Chinese immigrant chefs styled their own food to the tastes of urban Peruvians.
Among the many Peruvian restaurant sprinkled around the Southland, the following are my top choices:
El Pollo Inka has a huge following of Peruvians who don’t mind waiting on weekends for a seat in the small dining room.
Marinated chickens turn slowly on a spit over a big flame in the restaurant’s front window. These pollos are the house specialty, “ pollo a la brasa .” The juicy, crisp-skinned birds have a tangy aftertaste that accentuates their succulent meat. Pollo Inka also offers an extensive menu that includes the best version of ocopa I’ve tasted. “Westside chefs would kill for this ocopa recipe,” said my companion, herself a chef. She couldn’t stop eating the boiled potato slices smothered in their creamy sauce of ground walnuts, olive oil and chiles. Just about everything else, from ceviche mixto to seco de cordero-- braised lamb in cilantro sauce with white beans on the side, is prepared with finesse. Even the home-baked rolls that come to the table warm are uncommonly good.
El Pollo Inka, 15400-D, Hawthorne Blvd., Lawndale, (213) 676-6665. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
“A pisco sour,” explained our waitress at Julio’s, “is the national cocktail made with pisco --that’s a Peruvian white brandy.” This drink and the chilcano de guinda cocktail, which combines pisco and a Peruvian cherry liqueur, are good reasons to visit Julio’s. Others include Julio’s impressive menu, loaded with “ criollo “ specialties, and its informative manager--a virtual encyclopedia of Peruvian food lore.
Julio’s ever-changing combination plates are an excellent way to explore the cuisine. Though ours started off with a disappointing salad and chicken soup, it went on to a triumphant Peruvian-style tamale filled with chunks of braised meat topped with marinated sweet red onions and accompanied by sweet potato chips. After the tamale, which is almost a meal in itself, came a platter with samplings of house specialties: pollo en mani , chicken cooked in a lively peanut sauce; carapulcra , a mixture of diced, lean pork simmered with Incan-style freeze-dried potatoes (a tradition that predates Birdseye); estofado de res , a European-like beef stew with braised lentils.
If such a banquet seems overwhelming, try the anticuchos de corvina. These skewered chunks of perfectly cooked sea bass come cloaked in a creamy blend of ground aji marasol (a medium-hot dry red pepper), cumin and olive oil. For dessert, there’s mazamorra morada (often described as purple Jell-O), which is a translucent fruit pudding colored and flavored with Peruvian purple corn and studded with fruits.
By the way, if you want the explosive pale green pepper sauce, aji , you’ll have to ask for it. “We used to serve it automatically,” the manager said. “But many customers mistook it for guacamole.” Considering that Julio’s also serves Mexican food, this isn’t as strange as it sounds.
Julio’s, 5111 Torrance Blvd., Torrance, (213) 371-5255. Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9:45 p.m.
Peru’s long, spectacular coastline is abundantly endowed with fish. It’s not surprising then that most Peruvians love seafood. El Silencio specializes in South American seafood and the better part of its offerings are Peruvian. I like the conchas en salsa criolla. These raw scallops, marinated ceviche-style, come served in individual mussel shells topped with marinated onion, a fine dice of tomato and corn kernels. With this we ordered the best papas rellenas I’ve had. The stuffed mashed potatoes are rolled in grated cheese and deep fried so you get layers of crispy and creamy textures around a filling of seasoned beef with olives and raisins.
Both the printed and changing blackboard menus offer seafood prepared almost every conceivable way: with spaghetti, in rich soups, in stews, steamed, sauced, deep-fried or grilled. There’s even a steak topped with seafood sauce and chaufa de mariscos-- Chinese-style fried rice with seafood. Besides Inca Cola (an acquired taste) there are South American beers, wines and Peruvian desserts. None of the entrees, except a combination plate, costs more than $10.50.
Cevicheria El Silencio, 14111 Burbank Blvd., Van Nuys. (818) 997-9412. Hours: (winter only) Wednesday-Thursday, noon to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 8:30 p.m.
El Rocoto, a bright little storefront with mauve placemats on its table runs a careful kitchen which unfortunately is only open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The menu changes frequently but so far some of the best dishes I’ve had have been the arroz con pato (a leg of flavorful braised duck on an enormous bed of herbed rice), and chupe de camarones-- my favorite Peruvian soup. It’s made with milk-- rather like a well-seasoned oyster stew-- but uses shrimp and has a poached egg floating on the top.
El Rocoto, 4224 E. Slauson Ave., Maywood, (213) 771-8335. Hours: Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Sunday 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Peruvian food aficionados who remember El Sol’s Hollywood branch will be glad to hear that El Sol is still going strong in Lawndale. The place is packed on weekends with those willing to pay the $3 cover charge for live Peruvian music.
My favorite dish was jalea de pescado , a generous fillet of sauteed fish topped with lightly battered, deep-fried mixed seafood and sprinkled with enormous roasted corn kernels. The whole dish was strewn with fresh red onion slivers, raw tomato and a little lime juice. Tallarines con salsa de huancaina is genuine comfort food. The same creamy cheese mixture that is poured over potatoes for papas huancaina is mixed with spaghetti in this dish. Next time though, I’m going to order arroz frito de mariscos. Who can resist the idea of seafood in a Chinese-style fried rice dish with fried plantains?
El Sol, 15651 Hawthorne Blvd., Lawndale (213) 973-2486. Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Green checked tablecloths and green place mats give the bright dining room at Mi Rincon the feel of a pension in Miraflores or San Isidro, two of Lima’s more chic suburbs. Mi Rincon is, in fact, part of a house that has been converted to a restaurant. Maria Leva, the owner’s wife, comes from northern Peru and she occasionally adds one of her “Norteno” specialties to a long list of main courses and featured daily specials.
Appetizers include crunchy deep-fried chicharron de calamares , and a good ceviche mixto with scallops, shrimp and octopus. Among the entrees is a dish made with olluco , a staple of Peru’s up-country Indians. Cut into chunks and stewed with small pieces of chicken in a spicy black pepper sauce, you could almost mistake it for a potato.
The best thing Mi Rincon does, however, is ceviche de pato (literally duck ceviche). It’s not duck prepared in the manner of seafood ceviche. Instead the meaty duck is braised with onions in a dark, mysterious sauce that seems to be flavored with lemon juice. There is one dish to avoid: lechon al horno, an overcooked piece of roast pork with a lackluster puree of beans.
Mi Rincon, 701 S. Bristol St., Santa Ana, (714) 836-9482. Hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Most Peruvian restaurants serve a few Chinese-style dishes but Cafe Rico devotes half of its menu to such offerings. These include wanto frito , arroz chaufa and gallina con frijolito Chino-- chicken sauteed with bean sprouts. My favorite is chicharron de pollo , little nuggets of skinless chicken barely breaded, deep-fried and served with a peppery lemon dipping sauce.
Many local Peruvians consider Cafe Rico’s ceviche to be one of the best in the county. The succulent little strips of fish, cut across the grain, hold their shape rather than breaking into flakes. The flavor--balanced, clean and tart--has just enough chile flickering in it. And the papas rellenas are top of the line. Other dishes have failed though. One Friday, seco de cordero was a tough stewed lamb shank. And aji de gallina was mighty short on chicken meat. The ceviche alone, however, is worth a drive.
Cafe Rico, 10240 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Chatsworth, (818) 718-1876. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Just when I thought all the good Peruvian restaurants had vanished from the city’s center I discovered Don Felix at the corner of Virgil and Temple. Only a month and a half old, Don Felix is owned by Peruvian-Japanese chef Tsuyoshi Goto. His kitchen prepares Italian dishes such as chicken cacciatore right alongside Peruvian style noodle dishes such as tallarin saltado de pollo-- stir fried breast of chicken, tomatoes and onions over noodles-- and traditional Peruvian criollo items like tamal with salsa criolla, ceviche and ocopa. This said, Don Felix may seem like a cross-cultural fantasy, but Italian foods are as familiar to Peruvians as they are to Denny’s menu. On weekends Don Felix serves Peruvian breakfasts which include picarones (a Peruvian donut made with pumpkin and served with caramel sauce on the side).
Don Felix, 305 North Virgil Ave., (213) 663-1088. Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m-8:30 p.m.; Sunday 9:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.
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