Lima and Vine
Photos by Anne FishbeinCamarones a la piedra, a warm shrimp ceviche popular on the tropical northern coast of Peru, is a formidable plate of seafood. Shrimp, tinted a violent taxicab-yellow with puréed amarillo chiles and propped up with cylinders of boiled Peruvian tubers, are only just cooked through, so the bare, slippery crunch of the crustaceans plays about the stolid, claylike chaw of the yuca like a ballerina dancing about a marble column. Eating camarones a la piedra for the first time, at the new Los Balcones del Peru in Hollywood, I kept thinking how a chef like Nobu Matsuhisa might improve this particular dish, perhaps using live California spot prawns instead of high-grade commercial shrimp, substituting yuzu for the lime juice in the marinade, or shredding a bit of a pungent herb like shiso over the top instead of thinly shaved red onions. I could envision a $24 plate of camarones a la piedra at Koi or Sona — perhaps, as the name implies, even warmed over heated stones — but it was hard to imagine the extra expense making the shrimp any more delicious. And by the time I came to that conclusion, the shrimp were gone, the yuca was eaten, and I had blotted every drop of the marinade from the plate with an absorbent bit of bread. A scant block below the glowing Sunset + Vine complex, so close to the ArcLight Theater that it shares its parking lot, Los Balcones del Peru lies at the precise border of redeveloped Hollywood and its shadow, a breath of authenticity a few steps south, and a million dollars away, from the over-amped velvet-rope district. Los Balcones, probably named after the ornate balconies on the buildings surrounding the Plaza de Armas in downtown Lima, may be the only Peruvian restaurant in Los Angeles unadorned with Machu Picchu posters, imitation Inca gold or fluorescent portraits of llamas. (Antique photographs of Lima’s trolley cars line the walls instead.) There are three or four different kinds of Peruvian beer available, including the excellent Cuzquena, made in the old Inca capital Cuzco, but at dinnertime the restaurant’s formality seems to call for wine. Los Balcones also may be the only Peruvian restaurant in town without tapes of Andean panpipe music, which is almost a miracle, at least if you ignore the occasional charanga version of “Feelings.” It is easy to spend hours here, eating fried fish and drinking cold wine.The ceviches at Los Balcones are very good, not just the camarones a la piedra but also the tart assemblages of marinated raw fish and shellfish and purple squid tentacles garnished with puréed sweet potatoes, onions and marble-size kernels of the imported Peruvian corn called choclo, which are alarmingly large the first time you run into them. (You can also order boiled choclo on the cob here, served with salty, crumbly chunks of a feta-like Peruvian cheese.) Caramel-filled alfajores at Los Balcones del Peru. Conchitas a la parmesana is an improbable Peruvian specialty, scallops broiled under a thick, bubbling cloak of Parmesan cheese, but you find them at every restaurant in Lima, and at Los Balcones, where they are made with fresh scallops still adhering to their half shells, it is possible to understand their briny appeal. The restaurant doesn’t serve the grilled chicken that other Peruvian restaurants have made a specialty, but there is an excellent version of chicharrones de pollo, juicy, well-marinated chunks of boneless chicken meat fried to a deep, mahogany brown. The papas a la Huancaina, warm slices of boiled potato blanketed in a bright-yellow cheese sauce, is probably the best version in town.Oddly, the dishes that Los Balcones tends to do least well are the meaty dishes and the Chinese-influenced dishes that are usually the first call at most other Peruvian restaurants in California. Beef, for example, can be tough, whether broiled as a steak and served over spaghetti tossed with grainy Peruvian pesto, sautéed with French fries and vegetables as a lomo saltado, or grilled and garnished with a fried egg and fried bananas as bistek a lo pobre.But tacu-tacu, a tamale-shaped mound of fried rice and beans, is earthy, filling country food, ideal for cold autumn nights. The milky shrimp chowder is soothing yet sharply spiced. Tallarin saltado de mariscos, spaghetti sautéed with a mixed stew of squid and octopus and such, has the focused marine essence of the best Italian seafood pastas plus a sweet smokiness unique to Peruvian-Chinese cooking. Every manifestation of fried fish fillets I’ve tried has been delicious, whether buried under fried calamari as jalea or plunked into a puddle of dusky chile sauce as a pescado a lo macho, topped with sautéed onions and tomatoes as pescado a la chorillana or served simply with a sprinkling of onions and tomatoes.And then there are those warm marinated shrimp. I have never seen camarones a la piedra outside the pages of a Peruvian cookbook — Los Balcones’ owner swears that the dish is unavailable anywhere else in the United States — and I wonder where it has been hiding all my life. Los Balcones del Peru, 1360 N. Vine St., Hollywood; (323) 871-9600. Open Sun.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–9 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $18–$28. Beer and wine. AE, MC, V. Validated parking at ArcLight Cinema parking. Recommended dishes: camarones a la piedra, chicharrones de pollo, pescado a lo macho.
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