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RESTAURANT REVIEW : It's Hard to Pick Favorites at Papagallo's : Popular downtown Santa Barbara eatery now has a distinctively attractive branch in the Ojai Valley that serves up delicious Peruvian dishes.

June 15, 1995|DAVID GOLDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nearly a dozen years ago, there was this hole-in-the-wall restaurant tucked away in Isla Vista, next to UC Santa Barbara.

But its Peruvian delicacies were too far south of the border for the tastes of Isla Vista's college population, so Peruvian Jorge Ricci and his American wife Laura took their operation into downtown Santa Barbara and found instant favor.

For almost a dozen years, Papagallo's Restaurant of Peru has been one of the outstanding restaurants in Santa Barbara.

Now the Ojai Valley has its own Papagallo's, nestled downtown next to the movie theater--with which the restaurant shares bathrooms and, occasionally, the aroma of hot, buttered popcorn.

The restaurant does have one problem: There are about a dozen things on the menu that are absolutely delicious, and I have a hard time deciding which one to try. Fortunately, my Critical Companion is receptive to my reaching a fork across the table at frequent intervals to spear a morsel or two.

Ricci produces simply the best tamales ($4.95) in the region. They're packed with chicken or pork and wrapped in banana leaves, as they sometimes do it in Peru, and are moist and tender, with perhaps a little hot aji sauce added.

Potatoes, a major staple in Peru, come in a number of Ricci's dishes. The papa rellena ($5.75) can be a meal in itself. Stuffed with onions, beef, egg, raisins and spices, it is a beautiful melange of flavors.

Neither my companion nor I have ever found a better clam chowder than the chupe de conchas ($3.95), cream based but not too heavy, yet buttery and rich. And it would be hard to improve on the ostras al mojo de ajo ($5.95), oysters sauteed in lots of garlic, butter and wine. It, too, is a rich dish.

For ceviche ($5.95) lovers, this version is real spicy, both from aji and the crisp raw onions. The fish is marinated in fresh lime juice, garlic and cilantro. It's a bit too spicy, even for me.

One could go on, with the ocopa ($4.95), potatoes, peanuts, cheese and herbs, or the empanada Peruana ($4.95), a pastry turnover stuffed with raisins, spices, eggs, onions and meat), or the choros a la criolla ($5.50), cold, steamed mussels in the shell, topped with a chunky salsa.

Main dishes are meats, chicken, seafood and pastas. The emphasis in much of this menu is on lots of crisp onions. The pastas, although fairly decent, are not the most exciting items on the menu.

The most exciting? I'd go for jalea ($16.95), a giant platter of seafood pieces, hand-breaded and gently fried, then mixed with lightly cooked onions and tomatoes, the tart, spicy flavors coming from garlic, lime and cilantro.

But my companion swears by cau cau de mariscos ($14.95), clams and fish and whatever is in season sauteed in a sauce of garlic, mint, wine and tumeric, served in a broth with potatoes and cilantro, beautifully pungent. The broth is spicy and outstanding. Ricci does all of his own stocks and broths from scratch, the seafood stock being especially savory and tasty.

Lomito saltado ($11.95) is a great dish. Small pieces of beef are done in a heavy skillet with fried potatoes, onions, tomatoes and seasonings such as garlic, ginger, vinegar and soy. An equally succulent piece of meat is the cabrito delicioso ($13.95), leg of lamb slices grilled and then served in its own juice along with tarragon, red wine and mushrooms. The lamb is tender and exceptionally flavorful.

Papagallo's does a number of skewered dishes, my own favorite being anticucho de mariscos ($14.95), which boasts shrimp and a cilantro topping. The shrimp are crisp on the edges, tender inside, moist but firm.

The restaurant is distinctively attractive, especially seductive for long, warm summer lunches or the cool summer Ojai evenings. There's an outside patio with canvas coverings where we enjoy sipping pisco sours. Pisco is that sometimes harsh alcoholic staple from the Andes, a sort of South American grappa. Mixed with egg whites, lime juice and sugar, it is popular in both Peru and Chile.

Details

* WHAT: Papagallo's Restaurant of Peru.

* WHEN: Open for lunch Saturday and Sunday, 12:30 p.m.; for dinner seven nights, 5-11 p.m.

* WHERE: 139 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai.

* HOW MUCH: Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $22-$48.

* FYI: Reservations, major credit cards accepted; full bar.

* CALL: 640-8001.

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