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.