Restaurant Review #170: Fina Estampa Authentic Restaurant, Chatsworth

Seco de Res

I'd never had Peruvian food before, though I think that eating all of the cuisines of Latin and South America really should have been a prerequisite for my degree in Spanish. Prior to writing this review, the extent of my knowledge of Peruvian food was that some of Nobu's dishes have Peruvian influences (specifically, the ceviche and tiradito, as I have learned). And that was it.

Little did I know that Peruvian cuisine is considered one of the world's greatest cuisines, owing to its incredible diversity. Peruvian food has been influenced by both the variety of its people (most noticeably Spanish, Japanese, Italian, African, and Chinese) and its incredibly varied climate, meaning that a cuisine that has a lot to do with meat, potatoes, and rice also has a lot to do with fresh seafood and. . . Chinese food. What?

From 1849 to 1874, the Chinese population in Peru grew rapidly when they were brought in to the then-European colony to replace recently banned slave labor (though they were not treated much better than the workers they replaced). As a result of this and several subsequent immigrations, today there are thousands of Chinese restaurants in Peru (locally referred to as "chifas"). Lima, like so many big cities, has its own Chinatown. How is it possible that I majored in Spanish and no one ever told me this?

Well, they didn't, so naturally I was a little freaked out by all the Chinese dishes on the menu and didn't order them. I wanted "real" Peruvian food. But now that I know. . . next time.

Instead of Peruvian Chinese dishes, I opted for the plate that most closely fit my preconceived notion of what Peruvian food was. I wanted to try to complete the old SAT analogy:
American: hamburger as Peruvian: _________. I stuck with the specials section of the menu, which lead me to the seco de res, a beef stew in a cilantro based sauce that came with my choice of potatoes or rice. The meat was very tender, though a little fatty, and the brothy sauce tasted so homemade that I was sure I was sitting in a Peruvian woman's kitchen, about to embark on yet another study abroad adventure. According to the menu, the food is indeed homemade and made to order (and you'll wait accordingly). Our waitress was so friendly that I wanted her to be my mom.

Aji de Gallina
Shredded chicken breast cooked in a tasty cream made of walnuts and parmesan cheese

According to my research, aji de gallina is normally a spicy dish, but this version was totally spice-free. The Italian influence is readily apparent in the creamy sauce, but the addition of walnuts, which you'd never recognize if you didn't know they were there, give it a flavor unlike anything you've ever tasted (unless, of course, you've eaten this dish before). As far as I was concerned, the chicken and rice were just vehicles for sopping up every last morsel of the sauce.

Chicha morada
Traditional homemade punch made of sweet purple corn and cinnamon

From the description, I was expecting a creamy drink, a Peruvian version of horchata, if you will, in the milky purple color of a taro smoothie. Here again, I was in for a surprise: chicha morada is what I imagine apple cider would taste like if it were made with sweet plums instead of apples. It doesn't taste a thing like corn!

By the way, I'm not sure how many of the staff speak English here, as all of my interactions took place in Spanish, but pointing and smiling will get you pretty far in any restaurant, and the menu does explain the dishes in English.

Helado de lucuma

Lucuma is a tropical fruit rich in beta carotene (hence its vibrant color). It's also one of the most popular ice cream flavors in Peru. Its mellow, sweet, faintly nutty flavor is not unlike the flavor of acorn squash. The ice cream had a slightly grainy texture akin to red bean ice cream. Since I've never eaten fresh lucuma, I'm not sure if the graininess was related to the fruit's texture, or if the lucuma flavoring came in a powder or paste form, which I understand is common. Either way, it was delicious.

We also tried the pastel de chocolate, otherwise known as a good old slice of chocolate cake. You may be wondering what a generic dessert like chocolate cake is doing on a Peruvian menu. Turns out that many of Peru's desserts have European influences, so it's not so strange after all. That also explained the creme brulee-like item and another cream-colored custard I suspected might remind me of flan or tocino de cielo.

The restaurant's large, open layout is clearly geared towards hosting live performances and viewing sports games on the big screen TV. When we first drove by on a Saturday night, the parking lot was overflowing. We went for lunch though, and it was hard to get a sense of the true atmosphere when almost no one else was there. Had it not been for seeing all those cars previously, we probably would not have falsely assumed the place was a dud and not gone at all.

If you're normally a bit gunshy about trying new cuisines, try Peruvian. I'm surprised it's not already more popular in the United States, given how much it has in common with foods even the least adventurous of us love to eat (namely, the "safe" ethnic cuisines: Mexican, Italian, and Chinese). With the recent signing of a free trade agreement between Peru and the U.S. in May 2006 and vows by the Peruvian embassy to make the cuisine as popular in America as Thai food, we may be seeing and eating a lot more of it in the years to come. So hit the Peruvian restaurant scene now, before trendiness can infringe on its authenticity. Nobody ever says, "let's go out for Peruvian," but they might soon.

Most Entrees $9-13
Frequent live entertainment--call ahead to see what you're in for

The early bird gets the whole place to herself

Fina Estampa Authentic Restaurant
21830 Nordhoff St.
Chatsworth, CA 91311
Fina Estampa Authentic Peruvian Restaurant on Urbanspoon


elmomonster said...

I was on a major Peruvian food bent a few years ago. Although I rarely strayed from the chifa dishes like Saltado...I need to try the other dishes you tried. Also Jalea, mountain of fried seafood and yucca, is to-die-for (so I've heard)...need to try that too!

Lovely review!

::Alejandro:: said...

Glad to see other people promoting Peruvian cuisine. Great pictures and an excellent review!

Peru Food

Chubbypanda said...

Peruvian food rocks.

I went on a Peruvian kick after reading some of Elmo's reviews. There are a number of restaurants in Central OC ranging from awful to awesome. My current favorite is the Tacu Tacu, although I'm also a big fan of Saltado.

Good times.

- Chubbypanda