The first time I can remember sampling Peruvian fair was at Mario's Peruvian Seafood, a little hole in the wall restaurant in a strip mall in Hollywood. I think I read about it in an article in the LA Weekly and it intrigued me enough to venture out to try it for myself. The interior was bathed in fluorescent lighting and the decor had all the charm of a Tom's #15 burger joint. The food though, was outstanding. I had the papas ala huancaina, an appetizer of boiled potato slices with a rich, bright yellow, peppery, aji amarillo dressing, garnished with black olives and the lomo saltado, a stir fry dish comprised of strips of beef, french fries, onions, tomato, peppers and cilantro served with white rice. I washed it all down with a can of bubble gum flavored Inca Kola.
The food was great. I had already decided halfway through the meal that I was going to be a repeat customer. The flavor combinations were all new to me at the time. In addition to the food, I found interesting the fact that Mario's Japanese cooks spoke fluent Spanish to the Latina waitresses and staff. The Mario of Mario's Peruvian Seafood, I later found out, was Mario Tamashiro, a Peruvian chef of Japanese ancestry.
A few years later, I tasted a Peruvian dish at an office pot luck picnic. One of my coworkers was Peruvian and his contribution was a big tray of chaufa or Peruvian fried rice. Chaufa? I thought. Sounds like the Chinese word for fried rice, chow fan. It tasted similar to Chinese fried rice but there was a little something to it that distinguished it from the fried rice I was accustomed to. My coworker informed me that in Peru, a lot of the restaurants were owned and operated by Chinese and Japanese. He went on to opine that Asian, Peruvian fusion cuisine is a perfect match because the Asian cooking techniques and the Peruvian ingredients complement each other so well.
More recently, I had the pleasure of eating at NOBU in West Hollywood. Once again, the Peruvian, Japanese fusion was well represented in some amazing high-end culinary creations. Nobu Matsuhisa was born in Saitama, Japan and trained in a Tokyo sushi bar before relocating to Peru to open up his own sushi bar. He then spent some time in Argentina before setting up shop in L.A.
Of all the Peruvian dishes I've tried since my first encounter at Mario's, the one I prepare most often at home is saltado, probably because it's so easy to make and I usually have all the ingredients at hand. There seems to be subtle variations in the recipe from restaurant to restaurant but the constant is the french fries. The version I made that inspired this post is my take on pollo saltado; stir fried chicken, onions, peppers, french fries, tomatoes and parsley.
The Asian presence in Peru has an interesting history, not very different from my history being the fourth and fifth generation of immigrants to Hawaii. Laborers arrive, save up their money and struggle to earn a place in the merchant class, open up shops and restaurants, establish themselves in the community, eventually elevating themselves to the professional class.
Here's a link to Spicing Up The Melting Pot, a rather lengthy but nonetheless comprehensive article about the Peruvian diaspora in Southern California as published in the Daily Breeze. I found it on the El Rocoto Peruvian Restaurant site. Browse around and check out their menu items. Definitely a destination for me the next time I'm in Gardena.