1142 Garnet Avenue, Pacific Beach
Way, way back, my significant other and I got a dream assignment from a friend who was an editor at a slick new Playboy spin-off called Oui. Our mission: to drive down the Pan-American Highway from San Francisco to Tierra del Fuego, the tip of South America, and report on the trip. Our chariot was a severely dented 1957 Chevy Apache pickup with a rebuilt engine and a set of knobbly dirt tires -- the perfect vehicle because it looked like everyone else's, south of the border. By the time we reached Lima, the truck needed serious work -- the narrow, teeth-jarring, edge-of-the-mountain mud-and-rock "highway" winding through the Colombian and Ecuadorian Andes had killed the shocks. We were bottoming out on every bounce and looking at plenty more dirt roads ahead of us. We turned the truck over to a Lima garage and flew up to Cuzco for ten days' unscheduled R&R.
The food in Lima was really good -- the best and spiciest we'd tasted since crossing the border from Chiapas to Guatemala. (Longing for a taste of the familiar at 6000 light-years from home, we even found a terrific Cantonese restaurant downtown, El Gran Wony, where they made their "sweet and sour" with tamarind.) But the food in Cuzco was even better -- gr-r-r-r-eat! A dish called ají de gallina (chicken with peppers) blew our socks off -- one of the spiciest concoctions we'd ever tasted. Under the heat were rich, currylike layers of flavors from ground walnuts, cheese, and breadcrumbs. (Ají, by the way, is the South American Spanish word for all types of chilies, mild to torrid; it stems from Quechua, the language of the Inca Empire that stretched its fingers all the way up to Panama. Chile derives from the pre-Columbian Native-American languages of Mexico, and you rarely hear it south of Costa Rica, except to refer to the country of that name.)
Ever since that trip, whenever I hear about a local Peruvian restaurant, I'm there. And Latin Chef, almost from opening day, has been garnering happy words on all the finest food blogs. The day this review comes out, August 30, is the saint's day of Santa Rosa de Lima, one of Peru's most beloved icons (especially popular with the Peruvian police), so it's especially fitting to focus on that country's cuisine.
The restaurant is a tiny, colorful storefront (about eight tables) midblock on the north side of Garnet. With no carpets or tablecloths, the sound bounces around loudly. At a second dinner, my mini-posse was happier eating on the tiny patio outside, even though it meant we couldn't hear the lovely Andean music on the sound system.
A meal starts with a bowlful of canchitos, large toasted, salted corn kernels to nibble. Bet you can't eat just ten. The owner, Freddy Palma, is a former journalist from Cuzco, and as you look over the menu, he'll be happy to answer your questions and explain anything, like a charming, articulate ambassador for his cuisine and culture. Whether or not you bring a bottle of wine, try the chicha morada ("purple cider"), a refreshing, fruity-tasting drink made of purple corn, brown sugar, and cinnamon. It goes with all the food.
The two ceviches sampled at two dinners proved I hadn't gone wrong in coming here. You can get a ceviche de pescado (all fish) or a mixto (a mixture of seafood -- fish, shrimp, calamari, and octopus, plus slices of potatoes and beets), both in a strong Persian lime marinade, with enough hot pepper to sharpen it up without bringing it to the threshold of pain. I liked the pescado version better, for the velvety texture of the fish fillet pieces and the slightly higher spice level. The fish is white bass, standing in for its close cousin, Peruvian corvina (which isn't the same as the smaller, fattier Mexican corvina from Baja). The ceviches are salty, but that's typical of coastal Peru: Consider that a typical brisk autumn day in Lima is 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 90 percent humidity, with an odd aroma of rotting clams in the atmosphere. In that climate, you need salt. Both versions of the dish come with cancha -- huge boiled kernels of Andean hominy (a starchy variety of white corn that's been slaked with lime, a process that releases more nutrients). Freddy has gone to great lengths to obtain real Peruvian hominy instead of serving the standard gringo compromise of local corn on the cob.
Papas a la huancaina ("potatoes in the style of Huancayo," a small city in the Andes, south of Cuzco) and yuca a la huancaina (cassava-root "fries") are both offered. They're quite different from each other. The yuca version consists of cassava-root fries with a tart, slightly spicy white dipping sauce that may be yogurt-based. I didn't find it especially special. The potato version, on the other hand, is the most convincing rendition I've tasted in the U.S. Starchy red boiling potatoes in thick slices are swathed in a cheese sauce garnished with hard-cooked eggs -- very similar to what I ate in Cuzco. Given the local scarcity of llama cheese, most restaurants in the States substitute feta, which is all wrong (way too tart and grainy). Here, you get a proper creamy golden sauce (based on unsweetened evaporated milk, the way it is in the Andes) with melted Mexican panela cheese. It's rico suave (tasty and smooth), as it should be, and the right color, too. Peruvians love golden-yellow food, a tradition going back to the sun-worshiping Incas, well before the Spaniards arrived and introduced saffron. The cuisine incorporates mild golden peppers (ají amarillo), a gold-colored tropical leaf (palillo), and a mild light-orange paprika (ají colór) to turn everything that's white to gold. I doubt that turmeric is a native root, but by now it too has been adopted into the cuisine as a powerful colorant.
Anticuchos (marinated kebabs of beef heart) were even more fabuloso. The last really great ones I tasted were in the open-air mercado (central market) of Camaná, a rather funky coastal village in the deep South, where they were cooked on a charcoal brazier by a sweet-faced abuelita (little old granny) and served with an incendiary green sauce. I've never been able to duplicate them at home. But Latin Chef's version is very close to the taste-blast I remember, because Freddy grows his own huacatáy, a Peruvian herb indispensable in this dish. The meat is tender -- partly because it's sliced, rather than cubed, and carefully trimmed. The marinade is richly flavored, garlic-laden with a touch of cumin. The kebabs come with warm cancha (hominy) and chunks of roasted potatoes. Make sure you ask for the spicy green salsa verde for dipping (or spooning on), to get the full, authentic flavor that replicates the taste of my little granny's heart kebabs.
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.
"You know, you can live very well in Peru on very little money compared to here, but the problem is getting any sort of work there. The more genuine Peruvian products I can use, the more it helps people in Peru, where unemployment is so high. If they are able to sell these products to America, more people will be employed there growing them and sending them, and it will be better for everybody. We want to offer the people here the authentic flavors of Peru, and it is even better if it helps Peruvians as well."
Note: Just as this review was completed, the magnitude-8 earthquake struck central Peru, leaving countless thousands homeless and, far worse, destroying the delivery of potable water to the area, opening the way to a potential cholera epidemic. Peru is a poor but civilized and energetic democracy, so your donations will reach the people (not dive into the pockets of plutocrats). You can donate to House of Peru Earthquake Disaster Relief Fund at any branch of Washington Mutual Bank, or call Latin American Travel Services, 619-296-9579, or go to www.houseofperu.org, www.rescuetaskforce.org, or www.irteams.org. (Think of it like a foodie: A fine meal at Latin Chef will cost you mere pocket change. Pretend you ate in the Gaslamp or La Jolla instead, and donate the price difference to where it'll make a life-or-death difference.)