There is a cult about hidden restaurants – eateries that serve excellent food in attics, basements, anywhere an enterprising restaurateur can find cheap rent. Such places may not have any obvious customer base, but they often thrive thanks to word of mouth among cultural diasporas and sensation-seeking gourmets.
A case in point is El Huarique, which seems to have a good location if you look on a map – the address on Ocean Front Walk in Venice promises a strong walk-by trade. This is deceiving, since El Huarique is a food counter located on a narrow corridor inside a building with no sign. There is a Peruvian flag displayed by the entrance, but unless you are actually from that country you are not to likely to recognize it. (Hint: wide red and white stripes). The word huarique means “hiding place” in Peruvian slang, and the name is well chosen.
Once you find El Huarique, you have to decide first what to order and second where to eat it. The first is complicated by the fact that there is a large menu that is not very descriptive, the second by the fact that there are only a few stools by the long counter. Most customers take their orders to the beach or some other location – the great majority of the business here seems to be take-out. You will have some time to decide where to eat, since they make everything to order, and though it may take a few minutes it will be worth the wait.
I usually order tiradito, a marinated whitefish, at any Peruvian restaurant that offers it, but on this visit my companion was a non-raw seafood eater, so after looking longingly at the ceviche list I asked for a starter of causa de pollo. This dish is usually chicken salad layered with mashed potato, though it is much different in look and taste from anything you’d have at an American picnic. The Peruvians first domesticated the potato and have a few thousand years’ experience at making it tasty, and for some reason chefs concentrate their creativity of presentation on this dish.
Peruvian food is usually not a highly stylized cuisine, but I have seen some causas that had several layers and were as ornately decorated as a wedding cake. This one was different – the seasoned mashed potatoes were rolled into balls and then topped with a disc of chicken salad, which was then crowned with shredded green onion and bits of tomato. It was a modern and pretty presentation, and delicious too – the pale yellow potato was creamy and flavorful, the salad moist and chewy and the fresh garnish added flavor and texture.
For main courses we had lomo saltado, a Peruvian version of Chinese stir-fried beef with slices of potato added, and chaufa de mariscos, a version of seafood fried rice. Both of these dishes were originated by Chinese railroad workers and farmers who settled in Peru beginning in the 1850s and had a huge influence on the local cuisine – many of the most popular dishes in Peru are Chinese-inspired.
The lomo was made with beef, tomato, and green, yellow and red onions in a soy-based sauce, served with white rice on the side. Lomo saltado is one of the most popular dishes in Peruvian cuisine, and for good reason – the soy sauce with vinegar, spices and a dash of chili pepper is delicious. El Huarique’s version was perfectly done, the beef and potatoes were tender while the onions still had crispness and fresh flavor. A shot of the tangy green garlic sauce completed the dish, and we ate every scrap.
The chaufa was a fried rice with shrimp, scallops, tomato and squid topped with shredded green onion – not like any traditional Chinese fried rice, though obviously inspired by it. It was a hearty and tasty meal, and like everything at El Huarique, quite inexpensive – we spent less than $30 and had leftovers.
I have heard rumors that the current location is only temporary until the owners find a place with a real dining room, which leaves me with mixed feelings. They certainly deserve the success, but it is such a delight to find great food right by the beach that I’d like them to stay a while.
It is fun to be able to take friends for such good meals in such an unlikely location, so I will enjoy El Huarique while I can.
El Huarique is at 1301 Ocean Front Walk, #10, Venice. Open daily 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., lot and street parking nearby. No alcohol, no website. 310-452-1254.