On Artesia Boulevard in Gardena, there are two Peruvian restaurants right across the street from each other. I've always thought that was weird, sort of like finding a MacDonalds and a Burger King on opposite corners of the same intersection, or a Costco and a Sam's Club in the same shopping center. But I've eaten at both restaurants for years, and I'll have to say that there are some big differences between the two.
Joel and I headed out that direction for lunch the other day with Peruvian food on our minds, and decided to go for the restaurant on the south side of Artesia Blvd....El Rocoto. There are a couple of things about El Rocoto that set it apart from most if not all of the other Peruvian restaurants around Southern California. First, it's not strictly Peruvian but rather Chinese Peruvian. A Chinese family from Peru owns the place, and they offer a mix of dishes from both cultures. Second, while most Peruvian restaurants I've been to have been very casual eateries, El Rocoto is nice enough and has enough character to make it appropriate for a business lunch.
Ok, on to the food. First off, let's talk about the aji sauce. Every Peruvian joint serves up this spicy (or semi-spicy) green chili sauce. It's a necessary part of the meal, just like soy sauce at a Japanese joint or salsa at a Mexican place. El Rocoto always serves two varieties of the sauce, the standard green sauce and a slightly more spicy orange version. I still prefer the green, but really appreciate the extra flavor option that they offer.
My favorite dish at El Rocoto is their tallarin verde con pollo. I've tried this dish at various Peruvian restaurants across town, and so far El Rocoto serves up the best of the bunch. It's a breaded chicken breast pounded very thin served with pesto spaghetti and a couple of fried potato pieces on the side. Yup, it's a meat and carb fest that can be a bit heavy for lunch, but it's soooo yummy.
Joel opted for their pescado al ajo, or garlic fish. I know quite a few people who frequent El Rocoto, and this is the dish that comes up most often as a favorite. It's a filet of fried white fish in a garlic butter sauce served with rice. If you don't mind garlic in your lunch, this is a real winner.
Oh, and if you're going to eat Peruvian you might as well drink Peruvian too, right? Since something non-alcoholic was called for at lunch, I went straight for the Inka Cola. It's sort of like a lemon-lime soda, but with more of a sweeter taste, a darker golden color and a smell just like old-time Bazooka bubblegum. The stuff is awesome!
El Rocoto has two locations, the original restaurant at 1356 W. Artesia Blvd. in Gardena and a second restaurant at 11433 South Street in Cerritos. I've eaten at both, and prefer the Gardena location only because of the decor. There's a bright and happy tropical vibe at the Gardena restaurant that is bound to make you feel like you've stepped out of a strip mall and into a food adventure cruise. Find them on the web here.