You won't find "Perutown" or "Little Lima" in Los Angeles. The Peruvian and Peruvian-American population is spread out around Greater L.A., and so are our Peruvian restaurants. So maybe you haven't noticed these eateries -- often small and unassuming spots, tucked in strip malls far from trendy restaurant rows. But you probably have been hearing about Peruvian food lately -- some say it may be our next major food trend, becoming as popular as sushi and as widespread as Mexican cuisine. To learn more, turn the page for a list of 15 of the best Peruvian restaurants in L.A. and nearby. And keep reading.
Could Peruvian food be "the next big thing?" A Wall Street Journal article in September said yes, citing the interest of chefs such as mega-famous Ferran Adrià of Spain's El Bulli. Indeed, Adrià is featured in a new documentary about Peruvian food along with Gastón Acurio, Peru's celeb chef extraordinaire. The film, Perú Sabe (Peru Knows), made its U.S. debut last week at the United Nations. In Peru, the film proposes, gastronomy is not only gaining momentum in kitchens but also propelling social change.
Time magazine has declared Acurio responsible for "Peru's Plans for Global (Foodie) Conquest." He opened the upscale La Mar Cebichería Peruana in Manhattan last fall, and has another branch in San Francisco. L.A. and San Diego could be next. Until then, Acurio's busy running more than two dozen Peruvian-inspired restaurants in South America, Spain and the United States, in settings ranging from fast food to fine dining.
Here in L.A., when Lima-born chef Ricardo Zarate opened Picca last year with a Japanese-inspired Peruvian menu, Jonathan Gold said that it signaled the cuisine's move "from folk fusion to full-bore world cuisine." Two other L.A. restaurants seemed poised to help fulfill that forecast but had disappointingly short runs.
Osaka, a chic spot on Hollywood's Walk of Fame that took five years to open, shuttered after five months. (The disarming water pool entrance, perhaps?) It was an offshoot of a Peruvian chain with branches in Peru, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil. Chimú, a takeout counter at downtown's Grand Central Market, closed within half a year despite positive reviews. Its chef, L.A. native Mario Alberto, had chosen to cook Peruvian because he valued the different influences in the cuisine, including Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and indigenous. "There's room to stretch it out and play with it," he told us.
So don't be surprised if your chaufa resembles Chinese fried rice, or tallarin noodles, chow mein. Or that anticuchos could seem at home in a Japanese yakitori joint, and tiradito is essentially sashimi drizzled with sauce. Thanks to the Spanish, Peruvians learned how to make cheese, resulting in papas a la huancaína, boiled potatoes in a sauce of cheese, chile and herbs. Then there are the native foods, derived from the country's four distinct regions: desert, the Amazon, the Cordillera of the Andes, and 1,500 miles of coastline. Plenty of potatoes, since the country is home to more than 100 varieties (and scientists are still discovering new ones). Corn is common, too, whether toasted for cancha (not to be confused with chancho, pork), boiled to make purple chicha morada punch, or used in myriad other ways. Another native staple is aji, a chile that is called aji amarillo (yellow chile) in its young and fresh form, and aji panca (red chile) when ripe and dried. You can count on nearly every Peruvian dish to begin as a saute of aji, onions and garlic.
The U.S. is home to 557,000 people of Peruvian descent -- 1.2% of the country's Latinos, according to 2009 Census data. In L.A. County, Peruvians comprise 0.7% of the Latino population, says the 2010 Census, and 0.3% of the total population. Among them, Zarate remains our city's most prominent Peruvian chef, acclaimed for his modern and polished technique. Several weeks ago, he opened Mo-Chica downtown, replacing an earlier version with the same name. The original was a quick-serve spot in Mercado La Paloma, a warehouse-turned-marketplace south of downtown. The new Mo-Chica has an expanded menu, full bar and hip vibe. Food-savvy Angelenos are already praising the alpaca burger on blogs and Twitter. Zarate has joked that guinea pig could be next. Or maybe he wasn't joking -- it's a common enough meal in Peru. With Peruvian food again in the local spotlight, here are 15 ideas for exploring the cuisine around L.A.
15. Don Felix
Why do we live in L.A.? So we can go to a bare-bones restaurant in a Hollywood-adjacent strip mall surrounded by traffic for what Don Felix calls "Fine Peruvian Food." The Silver Lake location is roomier, with virtually the same menu. 305 N. Virgil Ave., L.A.; (323) 663-1088; and 4435 Fountain Ave., L.A. (323) 669-7575.
At El Misti, take a break from Lima cooking to try the distinct cuisine of Arequipa, a city high in the Andes of southern Peru. Also check out the vegetarian items -- noodles or soy "meat." The colorful murals depict typical picanterías where farm workers enjoy a home-style meal. 3070 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim; (714) 995-5944
13. El Pollo Inka
With several locations, El Pollo Inka is L.A.'s biggest (only?) Peruvian chain. (There's a spot in Miami, too!) The restaurant touts its rotisserie chicken, but the large menu offers a variety of staples including anticuchos, meat skewers such as beef heart. On weekends, you'll often find live music and a dance floor. 1425 W. Artesia Blvd., Gardena, (310) 516-7378; 1100 Pacific Coast Highway, Hermosa Beach, (310) 372-1433; 15400 Hawthorne Blvd., Lawndale, (310) 676-6665; and 23705 Hawthorne Blvd., Torrance, (310) 373-0062.
12. El Rocoto
El Rocoto is named for a Peruvian pepper so hot that it has been dubbed "the gringo killer." The restaurant's website says: "if you like to try a tiny piece of Rocoto, don't hesitate to ask your friendly server, but please also ask for a glass of water." 1356 W. Artesia Blvd., Gardena, (310) 768-8768; and 11433 South St., Cerritos.
If you are craving excellent rotisserie chicken (served with some nice condiments including mayonnaise-heavy potato salad, or beans made with chiles, bacon and onions), go to Lola's in Van Nuys, where they reportedly cook about 100 a day over flames fueled by oak wood. Don't confuse this Lola's with Lola's Peruvian Restaurant in Glendale, which has a different owner and menu. 14851 Victory Blvd., Van Nuys; (818) 988-2181.
10. Lomo Arigato
Lomo Arigato, a truck, serves just three dishes: lomo saltado (sautéed beef, chicken, shrimp or tofu), tallarin (spaghetti), and chaufa (fried rice). Chef-owner-driver Eric Nakata learned his craft working at Kotosh, a Japanese-Peruvian sushi bar in Lomita. The name is a play on the Japanese expression domo arigato, meaning "thank you." Follow Lomo Arigato on Twitter for location updates.
Los Balcones got a makeover in 2010, and now a supersized photo along one wall makes you feel as if you're visiting Lima's central square with its ornate balconies. Jonathan Gold's favorite camarones a la piedra (a spicy shrimp ceviche served warm) is no longer on the menu, but try the tiradito instead, similar to sashimi in taste and presentation. As Gold has reminded us, Balcones "is a lot cheaper than Nobu." 1360 N. Vine St., Hlywd.; (323) 871-9600.
Mamita is a homey spot in a row of car dealers. If the 100-plus menu options aren't enough, ask for the "platos criollos" -- arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), aji de gallina (shredded chicken in a yellow chile sauce made with bread and walnuts) or seco de cordero (braised lamb cooked in a cilantro sauce). 714 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale; (818) 243-5121.
7. Mario's Peruvian & Seafood
As one of L.A.'s most popular Peruvian restaurants, this storefront eatery in Hollywood is often packed at meal time. Remember there is a reason the aji verde sauce (made of aji amarillo and green herbs) comes in giant squeeze bottles on each table. 5786 Melrose Ave., L.A., (323) 466-4181; and 15720 Imperial Highway, La Mirada; (562) 902-8299.
Chef Ricardo Zarate has described the menu here as "comfort food," with cooked foods in large portions -- think stews -- rather than tiny tapas of, say, raw fish, as at his other restaurant, Picca. The visual style -- red walls, gold accents, a graffiti mural -- is vibrant and fun. Mo-Chica is named for an ancient Peruvian culture that greatly influenced the Incas, according to Zarate. 514 W. Seventh St., L.A.; (213) 622-3744.
"Instead of inflecting Japanese small-plates cuisine with Andean flavors, he's filtering Peruvian cooking through the aesthetics of the izakaya," Jonathan Gold wrote of chef Zarate in his review of Picca. The menu includes an array of causas (potato salads) reinvented as beds for raw fish, and anticuchos (grilled foods on skewers). Julian Cox created the inventive cocktail menu. 9575 W. Pico Blvd., L.A.; (310) 277-0133.
The stacks of logs piled outside this tiny Koreatown spot, and the smell of smoke and roasting meat, mean only one thing: pollo a la brasa, rotisserie chicken. Chicken so good that we declared it one of our 100 favorite L.A. dishes. Visit often and you might run into chef Nancy Silverton, one of its many fans. 764 S. Western Ave., Koreatown; (213) 387-1531.
3. Puro Sabor
This eatery's name means "pure flavor," and that could apply to many menu items, too, like the no-frills ceviche, or aji verde sauce made with cilantro and jalapeno. Also try the picarones, lightly fried pumpkin doughnuts. 6366 Van Nuys Blvd., L.A.; (818) 908-0818.
Westsiders, you are in luck -- no need to drive to Hollywood or beyond for chancha (toasted corn) or chicha morada (a purple corn punch). This pleasant bistro-cum-art gallery, where you might find a silent movie projected against a wall, serves the Peruvian staples. And a full bar, too. Happy Hour (50% off drinks) is 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. nightly. 11633 Santa Monica Blvd., W.L.A.; (310) 312-3800.
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Squid Ink recently sniffed out Takatis on Van Nuys Boulevard. (Hint: chicken.) You might be intrigued by sanguchon -- the "Peruvian equivalent of a Big Mac." It's a bolillo roll encompassing roast chicken, fried yam, shredded lettuce, tomato, a hard-scrambled egg and melted cheese. Don't forget the creamy red and green aji chile sauces. 6470 Van Nuys Blvd., L.A.; (818) 781-8122.