While the contributions of South America to world culture may include the magical realist novel, Che's groovy beret and Lambada: The Forbidden Dance, the continent's role in world cuisine has gone largely unremarked. Without South America, there would be no potatoes or tomatoes; Thai food would still be seasoned with black pepper. Chewing gum, chocolate and purple-corn pudding would be unheard of. So would empanadas, ceviche and some of the best restaurants in L.A. As Ronald Reagan once said, "You'd be surprised. They're all individual countries down there."
Mostly, you'll find grilled animals at Cafe Brasil: pork chops, lamb chops, steak, shrimp and fish, all profoundly salty and resonant with garlic, charred at the edges, fragrant with citrus and a little overcooked. Even the vegetarian plate, which consists mostly of various slivered squashes sauteed with vast quantities of garlic, has the belly-filling quality of Big Meat. With all this protein comes what seems like a truckload of rice glistening with oil, a couple of sweet fried plantains, spicy black beans and a bowl of "Cajun-spiced" bean soup. And Cafe Brasil, it almost goes without saying, serves wonderful feijoada, less offal-intensive than some versions but meat-fragrant in the best possible way, served with the traditional garnishes of fried yucca flour, herbed salsa and well-garlicked shreds of sauteed bitter greens. 10831 Venice Blvd.; (310) 837-8957. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $14-$26. Takeout. No alcohol. BYOB. Lot parking. ATM, MC, V.
Come here for the picada, and come hungry: This is one huge ceramic platter heaped with grilled lengths of thumb-width Colombian chorizo, peppery nubs of fried beef, pungent blood sausage, crisp chunks of fried pork, and the peculiar though typical Colombian chicharrones, which are more or less grids of crisply fried pork fat anchored to sweet, ultrachewy pigskin. Garnishing the meat are green plantains that have been pounded down to approximately the size and thickness of a 3x5 card and fried to a shattering crunch, also lengths of slightly riper fried plantain, a few slices of tomato and chunks of fried cassava good enough to make you remember why yucca fries were so popular a few years ago. And though the picada is ostensibly served for one, the $10 platter will probably serve three, augmented by an order of the wonderful corn-crusted empanadas or a batter-fried plantain stuffed with cheese. 7363 Van Nuys Blvd., Van Nuys; (818) 994-2930. Open Sun.-Thurs. 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $12-$18. No alcohol. Lot parking. ATM, AE, CB, D, DC, MC, V.
The cornerstone of the Ecuadorian kitchen is the fresh-chile sauce aji (pronounced ah-hee), whose tart, fiery taste accents Ecuadorian dishes the way the taste of smoked chiles sparks Mexican food and the saltiness of fish sauce does Thai. El Caserio's aji is spicier than most, juiced up with onion and fresh tomato, one of the best salsas imaginable, spooned straight over big, puffy white-cheese empanadas, or over the fresh-corn tamales called humitas. There is a spicy, wonderful goat stew, sweet and concentrated; a similar stew of chicken; a nice version of the Peruvian dish lomo saltado, which involves strips of beef sauteed with onions and French fries; and a fine lentil stew, menestra, served with a thin grilled steak. The shrimp dish sango de camarones revolves around a strange, thick sauce made with green plantains and peanut butter - probably unlike anything you have eaten before. 309 N. Virgil Ave.; (213) 664-9266. Open Thurs.-Tues. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $12-$18. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V.
La Fonda Antioquena
If the waiter likes you, he may persuade you to order his favorite Colombian soda pop, Manzana, which tastes a little like fresh apples. If you don't understand something, he'll pull out a Xeroxed crib sheet explaining that saucocho is oxtail stew, and that bandeja is a traditional Colombian cowboy's platter of broiled steak, rice and arepa, topped with a fried egg and a strip of fried pig's hide, which the crib sheet calls "bacon (Colombian Style)." He'll insist that you order the small fried turnovers, empanadas, and you should! If you prefer meat grilled, you might consider the Ave Maria, which comes with just about everything else: a thin, plate-size marinated steak, tasting strongly of the grill; a dense, spicy chorizo; a dinner salad with a strong vinaigrette; a thick, smoky pinto-bean stew (awesome!); fried plantains; rice; arepa; and the inevitable strip of pigskin. 4903 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 957-5164. Open Mon.-Thurs. 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $15-$25. Beer and wine. Parking in rear. MC, V.
The most famous dish here must be the baked-garlic appetizer, a naked halved bulb on a plate, ready to pulp onto the house's quite decent bread. There's also melted provolone cheese, laced with tomatoes and pungent Mexican oregano, for eating with the almost Vermont-style Argentine crackers in the bread baskets here, and an appetizer of butter-smooth roasted red peppers just brushed with garlic and oil. The fried squid are the tender, delicate kind, hardly crunchy, tasting more of the sea than they do of oil. Still and all, as with almost any Argentine restaurant, Gardel revolves around its parrillada, a cavalcade of grilled meats - sweetbreads, blood sausage, skirt steak, short ribs, Italian sausage - served on a smoking iron grill, accompanied only by a small bowl of well-garlicked chimichurri and a large plate of mashed potatoes. And the meat is just fine, juicier than you would ever expect such well-done meat to be, full of flavor, overwheming in its variety. 7963 Melrose Ave.; (213) 655-0891. Open Mon.-Fri. for lunch, seven days for dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $25-$45. Beer and wine. Live music. AE, D, MC, V.
El Pollo Inka
El Pollo Inka is definitely a big-city restaurant, its menu filled with the seafood dishes typical of Lima's industrial port suburb, Callao. You'll find big plates of ceviche here, fresh, raw fish marinated in lime juice and hotly spiced with pureed chiles, served with the typical accompaniments of potato, sweet potato and corn. The delicious jalea involves crisply fried whitefish fillets garnished with a sort of Peruvian pico de gallo, a citrusy chop of tomatoes and red onions. Sudado - "An Adventure of the Deep Sea!" it says on the menu - is a tomato-based seafood stew thick with shrimp and clams and tentacled things. The fish soup parihuela is close to the classic version, dark and pepper-hot as a superior Louisiana gumbo. 15400 Hawthorne Blvd., Lawndale; (310) 676-6665. 1425 W. Artesia Blvd., Gardena; (310) 516-7378. 23705 Hawthorne Blvd., Torrance; (310) 373-0062. 11000 Pacific Coast Highway, Hermosa Beach; (310) 372-1433. Open daily for lunch and dinner (some close late on Fri. and Sat.). Dinner for two, food only, $10-$25. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. AE, CB, DC, MC, V.
Congrio - a tasty, white-fleshed fish that tastes a little like halibut might taste if halibut had any flavor - is delicious fried in a light, crisp batter, looking like nothing so much as something off an oversize fish 'n' chips platter. Humitas, Chilean tamales, are terrific here, sweetly spiced, intensely corn-flavored, with the consistency of a steamed pudding. Steak, lomo, is thin, marinated and chewy in the South American tradition, and can come garnished with a fried egg or with a side of the wonderful, spice-fragrant yellow-bean stew porotos granados. Pastel de choclo, a pan-Andean favorite, is a sweet corn pudding that conceals a chicken leg at its core. But the restaurant's greatest specialty is the appetizer erizo matico, marinated giant sea urchin, the powerfully nutty iodine smack nearly tamed by the flavors of citrus and finely minced onion. 4354 Melrose Ave.; (213) 666-6075. Open Tues.-Sun. for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $18-$32. Takeout. Parking around the corner on Heliotrope. ATM, AE, CB, D, DC, MC, V.