But there is one thing that ties Peruvian cuisine together. "I'm going to tell you a secret," says Zarate. "The base of Peruvian cooking, the most important thing, is aji, what we call chile." A single species of chile supplies the core flavor of Peruvian food, in two forms: Young and fresh, it is aji amarillo -- yellow chile. Ripe and dried, it is aji panca -- red chile. Virtually every Peruvian dish starts with variations of the same base: aderezo, a saute of aji, onions and garlic.
The beloved sauces of Peru are mostly aji-based. Aji verde, the green sauce that shows up with every Peruvian meal in Los Angeles, is made from aji amarillo and green herbs.
The recipe varies widely from place to place; it may involve cilantro, basil or Peruvian black mint, called huacatay. Paz's version at Puro Sabor involves lots of cilantro and jalapeno, for brilliance and zing. Zarate's makes his with peanuts, for depth.
As good as they are, Mo-Chica and Puro Sabor are just the tip of the Peruvian restaurant iceberg in Southern California.
For hardcore carnivores, there's Anticucheria Danessi. The center of the Danessi experience is beef heart skewers, an unreservedly awesome trip into carnivore wonderland. Anticuchos de corazon are tangy, peppery and wildly beefy. Other organ meat anticuchos are worth trying too, particularly the tripe varieties.
They serve an excellent chicha morada -- an ultra-refreshing drink that's essentially purple corn tea, spiked with cloves, cinnamon and fruit. But if you're really lucky, Danessi will have a jug of homemade chicha jugo -- a spiced, yeasty drink of fermented purple corn. It's like regular chicha morada crossed with Belgian beer.
Los Angeles' favorite Peruvian restaurants may be wood-fired chicken places; tons of these joints dot the city, the Valley and the South Bay. The best-known is the Koreatown branch of Pollo a la Brasa, a tiny shack surrounded by cords of hardwood, perpetually pumping out clouds of honest wood smoke and the scent of roasting chicken. Here, plates of finger-licking, juice-dripping, chile-marinated, wildly smoky chicken are accompanied by some pretty spectacular fries.
Also try Super Pollo, a tiny corner strip mall denizen in Van Nuys. The brining process here results in some of the best chicken skin in town -- juicy, perfectly crisp and peppery.
But the grand champion of Peruvian chicken may be Northridge's Bonano's. Its birds have deep, intensified chicken flavor, perfectly balanced marinade, excellent crispy skin and dense, moist meat. The aji verde is slightly tuned down so as not to interfere with the concentrated chicken flavor.
Perhaps the most charming aji verde in Los Angeles is at Inti. Inti is almost invisible -- a tiny doorway wedged into the corner of yet another anonymous Hollywood strip mall. Inside, the restaurant is surprisingly spacious and covered with Peruvian textiles; the food is generous, homey. Their aji verde is super -- a handmade, nutty, searingly bright version that's endearingly coarse.
It's best with the dish that is Inti's heart and soul: arroz chaufa -- Peruvian fried rice. Their arroz chaufa with seafood is good; their version with slightly crisped, pan-fried chicken chunks is great; and their version with intense, seared, almost jerky-like beef is fantastic. Best of all is if you can talk them into making arroz chaufa with all of the above, then douse it with aji verde.
Gaston Acurio, the premier Peruvian chef who is planning on opening restaurants in L.A., may be Peru's most famous chef. But others already here are finally getting some attention. Since Paz opened Puro Sabor last year, she's been shocked by how many people, especially non-Peruvians, have fallen in love with her cooking.
"People write about us on the Internet," Santolalla says. When Santolalla showed her mother some Chowhound reviews that customers left behind, "she was so proud, so happy, that people loved her cooking."
"She comes from a really small town in Arequipa" in southern Peru, Santolalla says. "It's small and really poor. But there's a town website, and for months, they put her on the front page. They're so proud of her -- all these people in Los Angeles, loving her food. They think, because of all this, she's really made it."
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A taste of Peru across Southern California
Bonano's Chicken: The Los Angeles-area champion of Peruvian chicken. Unlike the other Peruvian chicken joints, it has a full menu, with lots of specials posted on the wall on paper signs. But having some roast chicken is required. 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 8363 Reseda Blvd., Suite 13, Northridge, (818) 775-1373.
2. Super Pollo: Super Pollo's fried sweet potato chips make an excellent case for making sweet potato the standard partner for roast chicken. Great fries too. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday. 6470 Van Nuys Blvd., Suite A, Van Nuys, (818) 785-6991.