What a disappointment! I expected a lot from this place given that Jonathan Gold gave it a rave review in LA Weekly a few weeks back. But then, I didn't try the jalea he suggested. I opted for the staple on which I judge all Peruvian restaurants; saltado de pollo.
This is a simple dish, one that I make myself on a regular basis. In fact, if you look at the photo in my blog profile, you will see saltado as prepared by yours truly. Saltado is not a complicated dish. It does not require very exotic ingredients. Cumin, soy, vinegar, a few julienned veggies, chicken and french fries...that's really all there is to it. If you're curious on making this on your own here's my recipe that I posted with photos.
What *IS* important, however, is that everything is cooked to order. Sadly, El Rocoto misses this one essential detail.
I should have suspected something was wrong when they brought out the dish of saltado scarcely five minutes after we placed the order. I know what you're thinking, "What's wrong with that? The sooner the food is brought out, the better! Right?"
At least that's not what I've observed with all the restaurant-made saltados I've ever had. My favorite joints for saltado (El Pollo Inka in Lawndale and Inka Anaheim in Anaheim) take at least fifteen minutes or longer to prepare their saltados. At both of these restaurants, what I get is juicy, plump chicken pieces, with a good brown sear on the meat. You know the minute you taste it that moments ago, this chicken started out raw and was seared on a blazing hot wok. Popping this juicy, hot morsel into your mouth, you should also detect "wok-hey", that elusive flavor you get only from proper wok cooking.
At El Rocoto (and also in the sad chain called Inka Grill), I knew immediately that this was not the case. As soon as I saw the dish, I knew. The chicken pieces looked stringy and pale, with little or no visible caramelization or searing. Although they were generous with their serving of it, once I tasted the meat, I found it ropy and dry. Even the dark meat pieces were chewy and spongy.
The verdict was clear. They had pre-cooked the chicken to save time. The vegetable components of onions, tomatoes, and fries did get stir fried to order, but only then did the pre-cooked chicken pieces get added. The resulting dish was flat and tasted stewed, when it should be lively, fresh, and hot.
This to me is inexcusable since I would have gladly waited a few minutes longer to get a properly cooked saltado.
There were also other misses with the food. They did badly on the fried plantains, which is again as simple a dish as you can make it. Their mistake here that the plantains were sliced too thinly and was fried in oil that wasn't hot enough to avoid greasiness. Adding to the comedy of blunders, some pieces were still raw. Even the sauces provided with the bread was subpar. The green aji and the orange aji sauces had little flavor and heat. It seemed as if every flavor on these sauces were muted. No herby kick, no fruitiness, nothing. Only in aftertaste did a little of the chili heat kick in. But by then, I just didn't care.
The one redeeming quality of the meal was dessert. It was lucuma ice cream. Lucuma, for those of you unfamiliar with Peruvian food, is the most popular flavor of ice cream in Peru. It is made from a native fruit and is adobe red in color. The flavor is slightly sweet, rich and earthy like taro but bolder, and without the starchiness. The ice cream also has pleasant gritty mouth feel to it. It is probably one of my favorite ice cream flavors. Obviously, El Rocoto did not make this ice cream. It is, in fact, the same ice cream they serve at all the Peruvian restaurants in L.A.
Now, if only I can find a store that sells it, I can make a complete three course Peruvian dinner at home!
11433 South Street
Cerritos, CA 90703
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