How could it be that until this past weekend we were unaware of Chimú? Blame it on the downtown location - a trek we so rarely make. Or perhaps, blame can be placed on the high-profile opening of Picca, another stellar, newly-opened Peruvian spot, that has managed to overshadow Chimú in the spotlight of summer restaurant openings. Wherever the blame may lay, this past weekend we finally discovered Chimú and the culinary landscape of downtown Los Angeles is now a much brighter place in our eyes.
Chef Mario Alberto may not have gone to culinary school, in fact he may not even be Peruvian, but he's recently worked his way through the kitchens of popular restaurants like Mo-Chica and Laxy Ox Canteen and seems to have found true inspiration in the local cuisine during a sabbatical to Lima. Upon his return to the states, Alberto teamed up with partner Jason Michaud to bring us Chimú. Stroll up to the walk-up window anytime before 6 P.M. daily and you can experience Alberto's take on Andean flavors that he's appropriately dubbed Peruvian Soul Food.
As we sit down with our friend Aaron (of Savory Hunter) to eat, our conversation quickly becomes littered with adjectives attempting to describe the sheer ecstasy and bewilderment each of us is suddenly experiencing. Yet no words can quite capture the degree of elation. When all was said and done and we stumble away, nearly post-coital grins plastered across our faces, the three of us humbly agree that this was some of the best food we've eaten in recent memory. Chimú leaves us dreaming vividly about beef tongue and pork belly drowning in salsa madres or dressed with huacatay aioli. And the hearty accompaniments of stewed barley, canary beans and quinoa leave us full and satisfied long after we drive off.
Which is all very surprising, considering the nature of this little walk-up. Food may be served in to-go boxes, but this is some of the most refined, beautifully 'plated' take-out food you'll find in town. Nor is the service typical of any other take-out joint. Manning the front of house is Rolando Maldonado, who not only works the window - punching orders into an iPad - but keeps effortlessly busy refilling waters, delivering food and checking on diners long after they've signed those credit card receipts. The food sells itself, but with a guy on the floor like Rolando - who seems to know at least half the diners by name - Chimú becomes a place you can't wait to come back to.
The menu (below) changes daily, though there seems to be a constant rotation of favored proteins, sides and sauces that get swapped in and out. One order might be enough for a lunch portion, though we stuff ourselves with six orders between the three of us. While you're still at the window, don't forget to get your parking validated. Or if you're like us, you might have found parking at the meters directly across the street. $3 gets you parking for an hour, which is more than enough time to sample a few things from the menu.
First up, the estafado de lengua or beef tongue comes served with baby tomatoes, quinoa and salsa madre. Tongue can be tough, but when done right, is tender and packed with flavor. Alberto's is definitely the later as he pairs the tongue meat with the tangy, tomato-based salsa madre. Perfect for a side of quinoa to bath in, we're so transfixed by the complex flavor of the sauce that we can't help but sample it against all the proteins from our other dishes.
The ceviche chimú (below) is made today with halibut that has seen the sharp edge of the citric leches de tigre marinade. After the acidic mixture has broken down the raw fish, it is then tossed with a sweet potato puree, yuyo (a seaweed) and corn.
The seco de cordero (below) or lamb belly is potentially the most enjoyable of the meats to arrive at our table on this afternoon. Served with rice, canary beans and red onion, the fatty lamb slides easily off the bone and even more easily into our mouths, along with a forkful of peas and beans slathered in black beer sauce.
The heirloom tomato ceviche is almost too pretty to eat. Plouts (a type of plum), peas and baby heirlooms all rest atop pillows of fresh, creamy burrata cheese. Though the decadent dish may not contain a serving of fish, it does feature a drizzling of that deliciously acidic leche de tigre. We recently pounded the eye-popping fish marinade like shooters at Picca, but here the juicy, pinkish liquid is served more like a subtle vinaigrette over the creamy, sweet flavors of the refreshing salad.
The chanco, or pork belly, is yet another signature item here at Chimú. Layers of texture punctuate the braised meat which gets its crispy exterior from frying before it's served. A dollop of huacatay - an aioli made from black-mint leaves - rests overtop, as the fatty pork rests in a bath of stewed barley and tomato. We find the thick slabs of belly provide a very generous portion for our enjoyment. We seem to keep digging up never-ending bites of the delicious meat from the sauce. That is, until it's all finally gone, and the inside of the box is licked clean - only now does it seem like there wasn't nearly enough.
We're all full, but Rolando brings out one more dish that we have to try. Being the polite individuals we are, we oblige. The duck leg escebeche isn't on today's menu, but luckily for us a batch was being prepped in the back for a catering event later in the evening. With perfectly crunchy skin encasing the vinegar and citrus marinaded meat inside, the duck is served alongside beans, pickled cherries and a shockingly good huesillio aioli. Flavored with dried peaches, the aioli provides a sweet and refreshing dipping partner to the duck. Just another fantastic surprise waiting inside an unassuming to-go box.
We may have never found the perfect adjective to describe the food - that magical word that indicates '11' on a dial that only goes to '10'. Maybe that's because there isn't such a word. Food like this impacts you on a different, unquantifiable level. It's a cultural experience, that warms and invigorates you deep down with a bounty for which there is no scale. I suppose that's why they call it soul food.