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 saute 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.”
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A taste of Peru across Southern California
Bonano’s Chicken: The Los Angeles-area champion of Peruvian chicken. Unlike the other Peruvian chicken joints, it has a full menu, with lots of specials posted on the wall on paper signs. But having some roast chicken is required. 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 8363 Reseda Blvd., Suite 13, Northridge, (818) 775-1373.
2. Super Pollo: Super Pollo’s fried sweet potato chips make an excellent case for making sweet potato the standard partner for roast chicken. Great fries too. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday. 6470 Van Nuys Blvd., Suite A, Van Nuys, (818) 785-6991.
3. Puro Sabor: At Puro Sabor, most of the menu is pan-Peruvian, but check the whiteboard, which occasionally contains specials from chef Juana Paz’s hometown in Arequipa. 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. 6366 Van Nuys Blvd., Van Nuys, (818) 908-0818.
4. Natalie Peruvian Seafood: Natalie is Peruvian at its homiest and funkiest. Its most popular dish? Parihuela -- a spicy tomato seafood soup, which is basically bouillabaisse kicked into the Latino stratosphere with plenty of cilantro and lime. 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 5759 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 463-8340.
5. Los Balcones del Peru: A lot of the Italian influence on Peruvian cooking floats around this place; try their fried steak platter, which comes with an excellent version of Peru’s take on spaghetti with pesto. 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m Monday to Thursday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 1360 Vine St., Los Angeles, (323) 871-9600.
6. Mario’s Peruvian & Seafood: Mario’s is probably the best-known Peruvian restaurant in Los Angeles. It’s another strip-mall storefront, right up against Radio Shack. Here is Los Angeles’ definitive saltado de mariscos -- a stir-fry of French fries, squid, shrimp, tomatoes and onions, in soy sauce. But possibly the single best nibble here is the boiled potato from the bottom of the chupe de camarones -- a buttery, garlicky, milky bowl of intense shrimp chowder. 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. 5786 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 466-4181.
7. Inti Restaurant: A homey little place that serves possibly Los Angeles’ most satisfying version of classic Peruvian fusion: arroz chaufa, fried rice. This is one Peruvian place that seems to love its rice more than its potatoes. 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 5870 Melrose Ave. No. 105, Los Angeles, (323) 962-2027.
8. Pollo a la Brasa: The Koreatown branch of Pollo a la Brasa is the most fun. Inside, there’s an ever-revolving chicken rotisserie over glowing logs of hardwood. Everything smells like smoke and spice. They make a mean anticucho de corazon -- grilled beef heart skewer -- too. 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 764 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 382-4090.
9. Mo-Chica: The next evolution of Peruvian food in America. Chef Ricardo Zarate’s cooking is ultra-contemporary: organic ingredients in clean, light, carefully constructed dishes. Mo-Chica also serves a spectacularly refreshing cebada: lemonade cut with barley tea and ginger juice. 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday. 3655 S. Grand Ave. (inside Mercado La Paloma), (213) 747-2141.
10. Anticucheria Danessi: A narrow corridor of a restaurant, with a gigantic mural of happy people eating meat. The specialty is anticuchos, skewers of grilled meat. Lomo saltado could be the best in town. They do a mean picarones too -- doughnuts made from pumpkin and sweet potato in palm sugar syrup. 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday to Saturday. 14531 S. Pioneer Blvd., Norwalk (562) 929-3398.
C. Thi Nguyen