Latin Chef offers two house-made versions of Peruvian hot table sauce (ají salsa): The green one is spicy but not seriously scorching (the heat equivalent of jalapeños). The hotter red one is made with Peru's fiery but full-flavored rocoto chiles, which taste something like Mexican-grown habaneros even though they come from a different genetic line.
All entrées are served with white rice dotted with green peas, and several include chunks of yellow Peruvian yam (camote) and bites of divine sweet Hawaiian purple yams (ubi), similar to a Peruvian species. If you follow my path and freely add the salsas, you'll need these tasty starches to quench the fires.
A favorite dish of Peruvian expats is lomo saltado, sautéed beef strips with tomatoes and onions, plus French fries plunked on top (or smooshed right into the sauce). Lima has a huge Chinese population; odds are, this dish is a local adaptation of a stir-fry. (Latin Chef has a whole menu section devoted to chaufas -- Chinese-Peruvian fried rice dishes.) You can't get the beef cooked rare, it's out of the question. But this is a sincere and flavorful version made with well-trimmed, hormone- and antibiotic-free top sirloin (not shoe leather), and best of all, delicious fresh tomatoes in season. For the first time, I could appreciate its appeal.
Pescado a la macho is a coastal dish, a bass filet topped with shrimp, calamari, red onions, and tomatoes. It only gets truly macho if you add some hot sauce -- the red rocoto salsa is the one to bring it to Limeño standards.
Seco de cordero means "dry" stew, but it's in no way dry, so don't ask me why it's called that. It's a ragout laden with cooked-in cilantro and tastes almost Moroccan. It's often made with goat or duck (or, I'd guess, young llama), but here it features lamb. Oddly enough, the best restaurant version I've tasted in the U.S. was at South Park's Vagabond, in a recipe from the French former chef's Peruvian wife, loaded with cilantro. Second best was at funky El Dorado in southern Chula Vista. Sorry to say, the version at Latin Chef's doesn't have enough cilantro for my tastes.
And yes, the restaurant does serve ají de gallina, another dish celebrating the color yellow, mainly from ají amarillo. Freddy buys the peppers frozen via an L.A. produce firm, along with rocotos, rather than use the denatured powdered versions more available locally. When I came home from South America, I tested out eight different recipes for ají de gallina (including a handwritten one in Spanish from a friend's Cuzqueña abuela) and fiddled with them until I came up with something like the flavor I remembered. This one has fewer ground walnuts, so less crunch, and more important, the dish I tasted in Cuzco was spicier than this rendition -- not just ají but ah-heee! Freddy told me that in his family, his grandmother couldn't handle hot pepper, while his grandfather wanted it scorching, so his mother made it mild and put hot sauce on the table to add at will. Latin Chef's rendition is mild and smooth (just a bit heartier than the rather aristocratic "ladies' luncheon" version served at Amici in Encinitas). It's garnished with cured black olives and hard-cooked eggs, just as it is in the Andes. With a liberal dollop of the salsas (most recipes in English-language cookbooks include rocotos as well as amarillos), the dish turned into something like the version of memory.
There are only two desserts, both interesting. Lucuma ice cream, made with an orange-gold tropical fruit, has a grainy texture resembling Japanese green-tea ice cream. It's odd but likable. Then there are alfajores, little cookies filled with fruity custard, charming puffs of sweetness to finish the meal.
Even if I can't rave quite as wildly as the bloggers (who'd probably give Latin Chef four-plus stars if they were rating it), I'm still very happy that this restaurant has come to San Diego. If you want to taste the fascinating, delicious food of Peru -- and it is thoroughly worth tasting -- this is a fine bet, with by far the most authentic, painstaking, and consistent Peruvian cooking in this area. But to repeat "Need to Know," please make reservations before you go.
ABOUT LATIN CHEF
Freddy Palma hails from Cuzco and was educated as a journalist. This isn't his first restaurant. "We opened a Peruvian restaurant in Tokyo in 1994," he says. "It was the first Peruvian restaurant there. It was very good. I sold it, but it's still there. It looks as if it's doing fine with the new owner.
"My wife is from San Diego and wanted to come here, so we moved in 1998. Before I opened the restaurant, I worked for a Japanese company in sales, and I also did some freelance work for a Spanish-language paper. But I always wanted to open my own restaurant. It took some time to find the right location at the right price.
"The chef that worked for my restaurant in Japan went to work for a restaurant in Los Angeles. He's from Ayacucho [the "second city" of the Peruvian Andes]. He'd say, 'Freddy, when are you going to open a restaurant again,' and finally I could say, 'Now, come down.' He's had a lot of experience; he was chef of one of the top restaurants in Lima when I hired him to work for me in Tokyo. So we combine his cooking and what I know of managing a restaurant to try to put good, authentic food on the table. We know that the Peruvians who live here are starving for real Peruvian food. It's hard work, but I knew that.
"The hardest thing is to find the right products to make our food really Peruvian. We had to find a source of beef that was hormone-free and antibiotic-free, because Peruvians don't want meat with those substances. I finally found camote, our sweet potatoes. Soon we're going to expand our menu, as I find more ingredients. I shop at five or six places every day so that our food is fresh, and I try to use the best that the market supplies, but we need to get the Peruvian ingredients -- the cancha, the frozen ajís, the sweet potatoes -- delivered from a company in Los Angeles. We don't use the ají that comes in a bottle; it has lost all its flavor. But fortunately, the weather is very good in California, so maybe we can grow some of these things in our gardens. I'm growing huacatáay -- it's a magic herb that we use at the end, when we're making our anticuchos.