“No Tortilla in Sight”
What do you mean you don’t know eat tortillas? This was the beginning of my enlightenment. It coincidently began while I was eating a huge bowl of menudo at my prima’s house. And yes, menudo does cure hangovers. My cunado or my cunie, as my prima refers to, is a Peruvian-American and has family from Peru and is very much into his culture, especially if it’s food or pisco. My prima, like most Mexican women in their family do, she tossed a huge mound of tortillas right in the middle of the dinner table. Or in this case the breakfast table. Does that even exist? I don’t know. But my cunado didn’t even budge! Not one tortilla, not one! I was in utter shock. He was going to eat his menudo sin tortilla. Everyone knows that the tortilla is just one of many keys in the menudo curing hangover remedy!
“We eat bread”, was the slow words that crawled out of his mouth. After the Tylenol and Gatorade kicked in, I started questioning him about other foods that Peruvians eat. Now, I know they eat bread instead of tortilla, pisco instead of tequila, and they even use banana leaves instead of corn husks. Two words: culture shock. Yet, it was a good kind of shock. For me, Mexican food is synonymous with SoCal, but I began to wonder and ask myself. Is it really true in this country of ours that a Mexican is the same thing as a Cuban? It is all the same. They all eat the same thing? There is no real difference between a Guatemalan and a Peruvian? I think not. I think it would be a fair question……if you were an idiot. We have so many types of food from down south; it should be easy to say that regional food is attainable here in SoCal, specifically here in Cerritos, in a city on a county border. Here we are in Southern California, we love the taste of food from south of the border. Thanks to my cunado, I wanted to try authentic Peruvian cuisine and El Rocoto, in Cerritos, is the place to eat and experience that.
I began my journey looking for a large building with valet or at the very least high class cars, like Mercedes and Audis, but I had a rude awakening when I drove up to this shopping center that looked like it was cut straight out of The Block’s planning book. It had all kinds of cars driving in and out. The sounds of cars screeching and horns barreled in my ears made me cringe. I began to think this was a bad idea. Damn Google told me this was the place. This was the address for this dang restaurant. I began to panic. I nearly jumped into the horn frenzied battle, but then there it was. El Rocoto. My first thought was, this is it? A tiny little door. Boy was I wrong.
As the door swung open I heard more noise, but this was more soothing. It was continuous to the herd of machines outside; nonetheless, this was the sound of a party. Glasses clinking, metal spoons hitting the porcelain dishes and ice chiming the silver shakers was all I heard. Once the door slam shut, there was an absence of horns and the smell of burned rubber depleted. This sound and smell was delightful. Music to me, really. I never been to Peru, but the smell in the kitchen and the colors of red and yellow made me feel like I was in Lima. The first thing my waitress brought me was two pieces of bread with butter and two crème salsas, one was yellow or orange that’s up to a debate really, the other was “guacamole” green. For a split, a very split second, I asked myself “where’s the chips?”, but I remembered the discussion I had with my cunado. I guess it comes naturally. I definitely, love carbs, so I think bread was going to be a great start. There it was. The heat was radiating off the bread, I could smell the steam rising up off it into me. The smell brought this warm feeling that this was going to be a fantastic meal. I honestly didn’t know what the cream was. I really thought it was going taste funky, and the green sauce, well, I thought it was guacamole. Man, was I completely wrong. I hesitantly dipped my finger in the orange sauce, thinking it was going to be sweet flavor. WOW! I felt this sharp burning on the tip of my tongue and I finally knew this was salsa in a cream form. I fell in love. I quickly cracked my bread and dunk it into the junior bowl. The taste was a mixture of soft tenderness with a slap in the face kind of burning heat. It was feelings from that summer fling you will never forget or a wife or mistress. I am not too sure, but you can get my drift. This stuff was intense and I was enjoying every minute of it. I noticed how hard the breads crust was, but so moist and fluffy on the inside. Once I dipped it into the green sauce I immediately knew it wasn’t guacamole. Not even close. It tasted spicy with a hint of lime. The mixture confused my taste buds. At first it gives you the heat straight on and your mouth expects relief from the freshness of the lime, but it actually makes it worse. It was definitely a double agent. But in the end the green jalapeño sauce was delicious, but it did not match up against good old yellow jalapeño sauce. The yellow sauce tasted thicker and went better with the bread compared to the fresh lime flavor of the green one.
Once I devoured my bread, I was ready to order and since I am at a Peruvian Restaurant I ordered the arroz chaufa especial. It comes with fried brown rice with shrimp, beef, pork and even chicken. Wow. This is my kind of plate. All kinds of meat and seafood put on one plate? I’m in. I was pretty confused and I thought it was interesting that my waitress, Susan, looked a tad bit Asian. There are actually a high percentage of Chinese-Peruvians that exist. There have been Chinese or Asian immigrants in Peru since the early 19th century. Because of this migration, Peruvian food has some Asian influence like arroz chaufa. Arroz chaufa consists of egg, fried rice, and different meats like shrimp, beef, chicken or pork. They usually add Chinese onions or scallions. Arroz chaufa is even cooked on high heat and usually on a wok, just like other Chinese or Asian food, like stir fry and chow mein. Soy sauce and chile usually go hand in hand when it comes to arroz chaufa. This mixture of people in Peru, like Susan, who spoke perfect Spanish and was Asian, parallels the mixture of people at El Rocoto.
As I waited for my entrée, I looked around and saw so much color in the room. It was refreshing. Behind me was an older white lady dining with a Latino. They seem to be laughing and enjoying each other’s company. Across from me was a family that seemed to be from the Middle East and to the right of them was a party of 8 of an Asian family dining together. Interestingly enough, on that table there was one white guy hugging and laughing with his Asian girlfriend. Laughter and smiles all around. And through all this, in the background, the sound of sizzling meat and silver hitting glass was exhilarating. This is a melting pot in the center of Cerritos.
Across the entire room and over people’s heads I see this mountain of food on a dish. I had this gut feeling it was mine. The arroz chaufa especial serves two, but it only served one that day. The brown rice was tender and moist. The shrimp was plump and meaty. This shrimp was in a class with the shrimp from Ports O’Call, San Pedro. It was piled on with beef and chicken that were cooked so well that the meats were tender and melted in my mouth. On the side, in a small cup, was sliced carrots and sweet ginger. I really felt like a newbie. I didn’t know what I could eat or not. Should I put the salsa on? Do I even eat the carrots and ginger or are they just garnish? So many things were going in my head. Finally, I splashed a gallon of the yellow sauce on top of the mountain of arroz chaufa and dove in. The mixture of heat from the sauce and the coolness from the ginger and carrots, with the meats and rice in the middle, was just amazing. It created this fusion and balance of temperature and taste. I would definitely recommend this plate at El Rocoto to anyone I know. I spent only $20 on an entire meal. The place looks elegant with cherry wood surrounding the restaurants wine, and the entrees showing, but the price is affordable and the food is amazing. If you want authentic Peruvian food, experience it here. El Rocoto is the real deal. If you don’t believe me, ask my dehydrated cunado.
11433 S St, Cerritos, CA 90703