Hill Street, where it traces the eastern edge of Bunker Hill, has always been an uneasy line of demarcation in Los Angeles, a few unglamorous blocks, flanked by an almost impassably steep slope that marks the border between the office buildings of the old establishment — what's left of it, anyway — and the remnants of the working class. When Mike Davis wrote of ramparts, fortresses and bulletproof doors, it was the terrain off of Hill Street that he was describing. (When his critics pointed out that the dystopian fortresses were more metaphorical than made of steel, they were talking about this area, too.)
The west side of the street is home mostly to undistinguished modern architecture; the east side to remnants of downtown's original Beaux Arts core. Pershing Square is on Hill; so is La Cita, a loud, mixed bar that practically defines this part of town. So many car commercials are filmed in the shiny, tiled Second Street tunnel off of Hill that tourists gasp when you drive them through it for the first time. Since 1901 (with time off for good behavior), when Bunker Hill was built out in sprawling Victorian houses instead of bank towers, the heart of Hill has been Angels Flight, the short funicular that ferries its passengers from the street up to what is now California Plaza, from old Los Angeles to new, from the City of Night to a city the CRA built.
If you time it right, you can find a free salsa concert or something at the top. At the bottom, exactly where you'd want it to be if you were looking to gather provisions for a picnic on the grassy slope, is the fragrant Grand Central Market, home to downtown's best gorditas — and, not incidentally, to Chimú, a new neo-Peruvian place in a small plaza on the south side of Grand Central Market: the kind of leafy, pleasant, decent restaurant this stretch of Hill Street has always needed.
Chimú, named for an Andean civilization defeated by the Incas not long before the Incas were conquered themselves, looks as if it has always been there: a neon sign of a dragon, a brilliant chalk drawing of a mythical creature (last week it was E.T.) and a few cement tables bolted to the ground.
Mario Alberto Orellana's list of inspirations on Chimú's website includes John Fante, Charles Baudelaire and Chilean auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky, which is more what you might expect from a young film major than from a chef. His food influences include ingredient-obsessed Frenchman Michel Bras, Australian fusion guru Tetsuya Wakada and Josef Centeno, a kind of highbrow roster that makes a certain sense: Orellana was sous chef at Ricardo Zarate's Mo-Chica when it opened, but is a veteran of Centeno's Lazy Ox, the restaurant that may contain the recombinant DNA of the downtown dining scene at the moment. The other two names indicate a seriousness of purpose. (Chimú is co-owned and co-run by Jason Michaud, chef-owner of Local in Silver Lake.)
Chimú is basically a happy marriage of Centeno's imaginative cuisine and Zarate's aesthetic of elevating Peruvian recipes with modern techniques and fine ingredients. Orellana, after all, is not Peruvian — as anybody who tastes his seaweed-intensive ceviche, mounded over mashed sweet potatoes, can attest. So his green-barley salad with tangelos and feta may taste closer to a macrobiotic standard than to anything you'd find in the Andes, but it is tart, creamy and delicious; the grilled beef-heart salad may share its main ingredient with a traditional anticucho, but layers the tender, smoky slabs of meat over arugula, beets and transparent slivers of apple.
A Peruvian restaurant is almost obligated to serve a version of pollo a la brasa, the garlicky, well-herbed grilled chicken that may be the most famous dish of the cuisine, but Orellana's version is unusually crisp, served with a sauce of pureed black mint instead of the customarily fiery aji, and served with french fries and a little cup of the spiced cheese sauce usually reserved for papas a la huancaina. The aji de gallina, an ordinarily gloppy chicken stew, is a different creature here: bright yellow, shredded flesh cooked to a kind of chewy, highly flavored spiderweb hovering over the sauce. Fascinating.
The first time I was there, the guy behind the counter apologized for the commonness of pork belly, which he insisted had become a cliché, but Chimú's chancho, thick slabs of belly braised then fried to a supernal crunch, is the best dish in the restaurant, smeared with a spicy black-mint aioli and nestled into a bed of barley cooked down with tomatoes. Braised lamb belly with canary beans was almost as good.
The menu, scrawled on chalkboards by the order window, changes daily, sometimes a couple of times a day. The guy behind the counter pecks your order into an iPad, brings out Inca Cola and tall cups of the house's slightly salty purple corn drink chicha morada, apologizes that the restaurant has run out of grilled beef-heart salad, and lets you know if the shima aji in the day's tiradito is going to be replaced by seared albacore. Shima aji? This is not Mario's Peruvian Restaurant.
CHIMÚ | 324 S. Hill St., dwntwn. | (213) 625-1097 | soulfoodofperu.com | Open daily 11 a.m.-6 p.m. | MC, V | No alcohol | Takeout | Validated parking in Grand Central Market lot at Third and Hill streets | Appetizers and entrees $9-$14 | Recommended dishes: grilled beef heart salad; pork belly with barley; tongue stew; lamb belly; pollo a la brasa