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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Kandy-Kolored Tuber

November 03, 1994|JONATHAN GOLD

If Chuck Barris had designed vegetables instead of hot rods in the '60s, he might have come up with something like olluco , an alarming-looking tuber from the high Peruvian Andes with Kustom Kar written all over it, sometimes salmon-pink, sometimes tangerine, most often canary yellow freckled with brilliant hot-pink spots. On visual evidence, olluco could be one of the lost crops of the Incas that might profitably have stayed lost.

But taste. Cooked, usually as the Peruvian stew olluquitos con carne , olluco has a sort of reassuringly neutral hue, a slippery crunch, and a mildly acidic flavor a little like roasted sweet peppers. Maybe because of its hot-zone color, maybe because it is difficult to grow outside the high Andes and isn't really imported much, olluco is only slightly easier to find in Los Angeles than Arequipa-style fried guinea pig.

El Hatuchay is a long, neat dining room in the back of a North Hollywood mini-mall, Machu Picchu travel posters on the walls and Peruvian pop on the tape deck, photocopied menus in front of each place on the glass-topped tables. Unlike other Peruvian restaurants in Los Angeles, most of which specialize in either Latinized Chinese dishes-- chifa --or the rugged seafood cuisine of Lima's port suburb Callao, El Hatuchay seems to concentrate on Peruvian mountain food, the spicy, tuber-happy cooking of the Andes: tripe stewed with potatoes and mint; spicy stewed beef in a cilantro puree; carapulcra , a thick, mild stew made with chuno , the famous, slightly chewy freeze-dried potatoes grown in the highest agricultural region in the world. El Hatuchay is packed at mealtime, as a restaurant with a $4.95 fixed-price menu should be.

El Hatuchay has the usual chifa -style food: fried rice; won-ton soup; the crunchy bits of fried chicken called chicharrones de pollo , and a tamarind-based version of sweet-and-sour pork. (The standard chifa dish, a stir-fry of beef, onion and French fries that is often the only dependable thing in a Peruvian greasy spoon, is sort of boring here, flavorless without a few squeezes of the fresh hot-pepper sauce aji .)

The $4.95 dinner includes a soft drink and an appetizer, usually papas a la Huancaina , thinly sliced potatoes in a cool, slightly spicy cheese sauce, which is just as well because the other listed appetizer, causa rellena , is usually just two skips from regular deli potato salad.

Often it seems as if instead of red and white wine, Peruvian restaurants have Crush and Inca Cola, which is the bright-yellow color of Depression-era Vaseline glass and tastes almost exactly like a tincture of Bazooka bubble gum. (In Peru, Inca Cola's not-too-compelling slogan is " Es Nuestra "--It's Ours.) Sometimes there is chicha morada here instead, a tart, violently purple Kool-Aid kind of thing made from steeped Andean purple corn.

And El Hatuchay has olluquitos in spades--sweet, pleasantly vegetal, with a stewed-rutabaga texture, a bit of beef and a subtle hint of chile. You'll find better olluquitos in the picanterias of Pisac, but they'll probably be garnished with dried alpaca meat.

* El Hatuchay

12853 Sherman Way, North Hollywood, (818) 765-9907. Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Lunch or dinner for two, $9.90.

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