Mario's Peruvian and Seafood Restaurant
5786 Melrose Avenue (at Vine Street)
Los Angeles, CA 90038
There’s a strange relationship between Japan and Peru. My first dinner at Matsuhisa revealed this little connection. Nobu (I can call him Nobu because we’re like this *crosses fingers*) had early culinary training in Japan, and somewhere along the line, he ended up in Peru. But Nobu wasn’t the originator of this Japan-Peru connection, he was there to cater to Japanese men already doing business there. Not sure what they were doing in Peru, but the Peruvian influence, definitely shows in Nobu’s menus.
When I was in business school, the Japan-Peru connection showed itself again. Half of my master’s thesis group were exchange students from Japan, and on their breaks, would travel to Peru for holiday. Not Hawaii, not the Caribbean. Peru. I don’t have the time today to research the history, if there is any at all, but I do find it interesting. Perhaps someone will be able to enlighten me this relationship some time in the future.
And now I find it again with a recent first time visit to Mario’s Peruvian and Seafood Restaurant in Los Angeles, which has an almost cult-like following. Mario is not just a made-up Latin-sounding name to indicate a Latin cuisine. It is, in fact, the name of a real person, owner Mario Tamashiro, a Japanese Peruvian. But unlike Matushisa’s delicate Japanese cuisine with Peruvian influences, Mario’s is straight up Peruvian food.
My only exposure to Peruvian food had been the El Pollo Inka chain – it was a frequent lunch spot when I worked in El Segundo, and I tried it for dinner a few times when it was on the corner of Wilshire and Barrington. El Pollo Inka didn’t blow me away, and I thought it was weird that there were French fries in the food. Incidentally, that location has since been replaced by the Budweiser banner plastered House of Ribs – and that, blows me away with its stupid name, but that’s just a different topic all together.
Mario’s was the chosen setting for an experiment in virtual food freakishness. Dinner would be at 6 o'clcok. I balked. Who eats dinner at 6 o’clock, in LA, and on a weekday, no less?!?! At 6 o’clock, I’m just getting my evening marketing groove on at work, for fox ache! I knew it. I was going to be meeting a bunch of weirdos. Because I’m totally not weird at all. *wink* But Mario is. Dinner has to be at 6 because the restaurant closes at 8 o’clock. Weird.
Trying to get to Mario’s at the appointed hour, I sped down Melrose and passed it twice, not because the sign isn’t bright enough, but it’s in a plaza that doesn’t quite face the main street. The store is wedged between a Popeye’s Chicken and some other typical crumbling strip mall stores, so even with its gaudy red and blue sign and blinking Vegas lights, it doesn’t stand out. The parking lot for the plaza has space for about a half dozen small cars, so when I finally did make it in, I had to exit right back out and look on the street. I parked in front of a decaying church on a seedy side street. I double-checked to make sure I had locked the car doors.
If I hadn’t been paying attention, I would have thought I had actually walked into the church’s dining hall instead of a restaurant – fluorescent overhead lighting, plain tables without cloths, and chairs so Puritanical they were uncomfortable. That description fits many local L.A. strip mall joints that are famous for no-nonsense food, but Mario’s walls are uniquely adorned with ornate golden crucifixes and portraits of a man with long wavy borwn hair who’d probably say grace with you before dinner.
But no one seems to care about the lack of ambience and somewhat oddly religious decor, because even at this early hour, Mario’s is full of diners. Standing patiently as if in line to take their Holy Communion, there are at least four groups waiting in a mysterious invisible roped off line. Thankfully, my group is already seated at a table by the grease-streaked, fingerprinted window, and I just have to plunk myself down.
This was the dinner that got a little hazy with three (was it four?) bottles of wine. Mario’s doesn’t have a wine list, because it’s not really a place to come and enjoy a lovely meal with a bottle or two of wine. This is a place to seriously grub. But they have no corkage fee either, so we took full advantage. No, it wasn’t a miracle. We were drinking our own wine out Mario’s water glasses.
Many have said that the service at Mario’s is slow, but I just can’t comment on the service because our group took a long time before we even got to opening the menu. We took a long time to review the menu. We took a long time to order. If the service was slow, we wouldn’t have noticed. Besides, we were in wine-warp speed.
There were plain white rolls on the table, but since I am desperately trying to get ready for my birthday blowout bash next week and will eventually have to pour this body into an extremely fitted bridesmaid dress in a few months, I didn’t join in the breaking of bread. *sigh* But I felt better about missing those delectable carbs when the accompaniment was a bowl of petite plastic cups of butter with the peel-off tops. The kind that come with pancakes at a truck stop on the I-5.
Our appetizers were mussels and shrimp ceviche, which both tasted fairly good, but not very different from each other. They both had the same heavily citrus-spiked mix of red onion and tomatoes. The ceviche was made from what seemed like pre-cooked shrimp rather than raw shrimp that had been “cooked” by the citric acid. It could have been lemon; or it could have been lime. It actually tasted l
ike orange juice. On the plate, there was also a single plain boiled potato and section of corn on the cob. Potatoes are abundant in Peruvian cuisine, and there’s certainly some interesting culinary history there, too.
Mussels were fresh, as was the salsa cruda piled atop each one. There were chopped peppers in there with the tomatoes and red onions, but they couldn’t have been jalapenos. I didn’t get any heat.
Heat, however, is blazingly apparent in a large squeeze bottle on the table filled with a subtly verdant sauce that looks like it could be liquid guacamole, but is actually a puree of chilies, cilantro, garlic, and probably other things that I can’t identify. I mean, I think we were on the Basa by then and my senses were starting to numb. If I were Peruvian, this green salsa would be my sriracha – douse everything.
Tomatoes and red onions are ubiquitous ingredients in Mario’s kitchen. Like the appetizers, our trinity of main dishes all included them, though to varying degrees. Though the appetizers tasted like each other, the main dishes were all very different and interesting. We ordered by number – why else would the items be numbered if they weren’t to be ordered that way? Number 26 is the famous Saltado de Mariscos – a stir fry of octopus, squid, shrimp and vegetables. And there they were. French fries. The flavor of the dish was deep, but the cephalopods were a little chewier than I like. That’s right, I said cephalopods.
Number 14 is another well-known dish. Lomo Saltado is a beef and French fries, sautéed with red onions. Though it’s a stir-fry, it’s nice to see the care Mario’s takes to match the ingredients with each other. Strips of beef and potatoes for French fries are uniform in shape and size, and red onions are cut longitudinally to maintain their integrity as they cook. However, the beef was cooked to well-done, leaving it slightly dry for my taste. But that’s just an excellent excuse for a gratuitous squeeze of the green bottle.
Pescado was the third dish, but I’ll be quite honest, it was totally unmemorable, and that’s not just the wine talking. I can’t even remember the dish’s name nor number. It might have been Number 29, the Pescado Frito, but I think it was the Number 30, Pescado Churriano. 29...30. Frito...Churriano. Let’s call the whole thing awfully unremarkable.
By the time we left (almost 8), Mario’s was starting to shut down, and still there were a few patient diners waiting for a table, one of which we had monopolized for almost two hours. Even though I had parked in front of a church, Jesus had watched over my meal, and I had softly cursed “Oh, God...” several times the next morning as I smacked myself in the forehead remembering all my wine-induced antics from the night before, I can’t say that Mario’s was a religious experience for me. But I can't say it was my last supper there either, since I didn't really get the full food experience. I’ll be back to give it a second chance. Hey, that’s what Jesus would do.