You might not expect homey Peruvian cooking in a Brand Boulevard roadhouse right near several new- and used-car dealerships. But that's Mamita, a friendly, casual stop where most of the clientele seems to be on a first-name basis with the entire staff.
Its name is Spanish for "little mother"; ironically, owner Nena Chinen's first name means "little doll." And in case you're wondering about that last name, Chinen's father is Peruvian of Okinawan extraction. The Asian-Latin American connection doesn't end there. Her mother, a native of El Salvador, is Chinese by ancestry.
Your first clue that it's a Peruvian restaurant is the two-quart bottle of Inca Cola enshrined behind glass near the cash register. (Inca Cola is a pale yellow soft drink with a flavor that reminds me of bubble gum.) If that doesn't spell it out, the walls are filled with folksy murals of Andean peasants.
Peru has both high mountains and a long seacoast, which may explain why its cuisine varies so much from region to region. But potatoes and yuca root are the dietary staples of much of the country, and Mamita serves them with everything--even with ceviche, Peru's most famous culinary export.
Ceviche mixto --marinated raw snapper, squid, shrimp and octopus on a grand platter--is a sensible starting point for any meal at Mamita. It's traditionally served with salsa criolla (onions with vinegar and parsley), but here you also have the option of aji , a green herbal paste with a powerful kick. (A good number of the regulars smear aji on everything, including piping-hot French rolls.)
If you're really hungry, try one of the irresistible appetizers from the specials blackboard. Peruvian tamales, for instance. Even if there were nothing to this flat, steaming corn cake, the cooking liquid (chicken stock, I suspect) makes it a treat. Stuffed as it is with eggs, shredded chicken and mashed olives, the tamale makes a majestic snack.
Papa rellena , another starter from the blackboard, is definitely mountain food. It's a delicious deep-fried cake of mashed up potato with a filling of ground beef, sweet spices and a smidgen of olives.
Papas a la Huancaina , Peru's most famous potato dish, is on the regular menu. It's boiled potato slices smothered in a three-cheese sauce, and here, unfortunately, brought to the table lukewarm.
Mamita bills itself as a seafood restaurant, and the main draw is fresh red snapper, most commonly filleted and fried with garlicky rice. I had my snapper a lo macho , smothered with sauteed calamari and shrimp under a rich blanket of tomato and onion. Omit the sauteed seafood and it's snapper a la chorrillana , and also delicious.
Any of the Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley would envy arroz chaufa de mariscos , a terrific version of fried rice made with squid, octopus and shrimp. Shrimp fanciers should also consider the camarones al ajo , where whole shrimp are sauteed in butter and garlic.
Tallarin de mariscos takes part of its name from the Italian pasta called tagliarini , so you shouldn't be surprised to discover that it's pretty much mixed seafood spaghetti, Peruvianized with the addition of a giant side of French fries to what is already a trencherman's portion.
Seco de res (from the specials board) is beef stew in a thick onion sauce. The meat has to be as tender as in any beef stew in town, and it's wonderful with its accompaniment of white beans and boiled potatoes. Lomo saltado , a rustic dish of sauteed beef, is inundated with tomatoes, onions and more French fries, all on top of a mound of fluffy rice. It's appealing, though it could be less salty.
If you want to do the whole Peruvian thing, wash your meal down with a glass of chicha morada , the national drink made from dark purple corn that tastes mainly of cloves.
Crema volteada is a homemade custard that is eggier, if this is possible, than its better-known cousin flan. The best dessert here, though, is alfajores , sandwiches made from shortbread cookies filled with cajeta , a dense caramel paste made from slowly boiled milk.
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* WHERE: Mamita, 714 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Suggested dishes: tamales, $3.25; ceviche mixto , $8.25; arroz chaufa de mariscos , $9.25; pescado a lo macho , $8.25; alfajores , $1.50.
* WHEN: Lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday.
* HOW MUCH: Dinner for two, $15-$26. Beer and wine only. Street parking. Discover, MasterCard and Visa.
* FYI: (818) 243-5121.