A little more than five years ago, there were a number of Peruvian restaurants clustered around Melrose and Vermont. Their clientele, primarily a Peruvian one, included a smattering of adventurous tasters who raved about the food.
Most of these places have vanished, but you can still get a wonderful " comida Peruana " in Los Angeles. New Peruvian restaurants have surfaced in Torrance, Lawndale, South Gate and the San Fernando Valley.
If you've never tasted Peruvian food, few dishes illustrate its diverse influences like a plate of lomo saltado. It's an East-West sort of dish, a Chinese-style stir-fry of garlicky beef with tomatoes and French fries mixed into it. On the side comes a treacherous green hot sauce--an Incan-inspired puree of chile, simply called aji (hot pepper).
You might think such a mix sounds terribly exotic but Peruvian food can be reassuringly familiar. When the Indians introduced the Spanish to potatoes and tomatoes, the Spanish taught the Indians to make cheese and the result was magical: papas huancaina , boiled potatoes blanketed in a creamy cheese sauce with a subtle kick of chile, and picante de mariscos , a peppery stew of cubed potatoes and shellfish in tomato sauce. The Chinese element crept in after the turn of the century when Chinese immigrant chefs styled their own food to the tastes of urban Peruvians.
Among the many Peruvian restaurant sprinkled around the Southland, the following are my top choices:
El Pollo Inka has a huge following of Peruvians who don't mind waiting on weekends for a seat in the small dining room.
Marinated chickens turn slowly on a spit over a big flame in the restaurant's front window. These pollos are the house specialty, " pollo a la brasa ." The juicy, crisp-skinned birds have a tangy aftertaste that accentuates their succulent meat. Pollo Inka also offers an extensive menu that includes the best version of ocopa I've tasted. "Westside chefs would kill for this ocopa recipe," said my companion, herself a chef. She couldn't stop eating the boiled potato slices smothered in their creamy sauce of ground walnuts, olive oil and chiles. Just about everything else, from ceviche mixto to seco de cordero-- braised lamb in cilantro sauce with white beans on the side, is prepared with finesse. Even the home-baked rolls that come to the table warm are uncommonly good.
El Pollo Inka, 15400-D, Hawthorne Blvd., Lawndale, (213) 676-6665. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
"A pisco sour," explained our waitress at Julio's, "is the national cocktail made with pisco --that's a Peruvian white brandy." This drink and the chilcano de guinda cocktail, which combines pisco and a Peruvian cherry liqueur, are good reasons to visit Julio's. Others include Julio's impressive menu, loaded with " criollo " specialties, and its informative manager--a virtual encyclopedia of Peruvian food lore.
Julio's ever-changing combination plates are an excellent way to explore the cuisine. Though ours started off with a disappointing salad and chicken soup, it went on to a triumphant Peruvian-style tamale filled with chunks of braised meat topped with marinated sweet red onions and accompanied by sweet potato chips. After the tamale, which is almost a meal in itself, came a platter with samplings of house specialties: pollo en mani , chicken cooked in a lively peanut sauce; carapulcra , a mixture of diced, lean pork simmered with Incan-style freeze-dried potatoes (a tradition that predates Birdseye); estofado de res , a European-like beef stew with braised lentils.
If such a banquet seems overwhelming, try the anticuchos de corvina. These skewered chunks of perfectly cooked sea bass come cloaked in a creamy blend of ground aji marasol (a medium-hot dry red pepper), cumin and olive oil. For dessert, there's mazamorra morada (often described as purple Jell-O), which is a translucent fruit pudding colored and flavored with Peruvian purple corn and studded with fruits.
By the way, if you want the explosive pale green pepper sauce, aji , you'll have to ask for it. "We used to serve it automatically," the manager said. "But many customers mistook it for guacamole." Considering that Julio's also serves Mexican food, this isn't as strange as it sounds.
Julio's, 5111 Torrance Blvd., Torrance, (213) 371-5255. Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9:45 p.m.