Beneath the Batter
LA Weekly's Jonathan Gold once wrote that the chicharron de pollo at Mario's Peruvian Seafood was "something like Peruvian Chicken McNuggets, heavily breaded chunks cooked to resemble fried pigskin, and served with an herbed, citric dipping sauce as vividly yellow as a happy-face emblem."
There's just one problem: The place he lauds is in Hollywood, which means there's about two hours of gridlock between you and the poultry Promised Land. What, then, is an OC dweller to do? Go to the new Mario's in La Mirada, that's what.
Before you send letters telling me to get my geography straight, I know La Mirada isn't in Orange County. But it's close enough—especially for our readers who live in Buena Park or La Habra. For them, the finger-lickin' goodness of Mario's chicharron de pollo is only a city away, and just as irresistible as Mr. Gold's favorite on Melrose.
A serving is about a half-chicken's worth of golf-ball-sized hunks, battered and fried until skin and meat molecularly bond. Even so, you'll find yourself peeling off strips of skin, savoring the addictive crackle and the marvelous way it concentrates the requisite flavors of fat and salt.
As incredible as the chicken is, once the jalea de mariscos comes, so, too, will the slack-jawed looks of disbelief. As majestic as Machu Picchu and just as daunting, this mountain of fried seafood will dwarf all else at the table. A serving dish as wide as a pizza box contains no less than five portions of golden, battered calamari rings, tentacles, fish fillets, potatoes and shell-on jumbo shrimp. An antidote of shaved red onions laced in spiced citrus juice is also served-to be used in case of a deep-fryer overdose. Even with it, after a few decadent bites, you'll resign the rest to the doggie bag, where it can function as sustenance for the days that follow.
Camaron al ajo is more sensibly sized but equally terrific. Curls of naked shrimp are dusted in starch and fried before being tossed with sliced garlic and melted butter. It's cruder than scampi, but also truer and bolder.
Don't get the wrong idea; Mario's doesn't just coast on what it can do with the Frialator. They also prepare a traditional ceviche de pescado, ceviche de camarones, and ceviche mixto. The latter is a lemony, acid-cooked combo of all the raw seafood they've got, paired with raw onions, a lump of sugary-sweet potato and fried corn kernels that crumble in crunchy shards. If that's too perky an appetizer for you, there's the papa a la huancaína, in which boiled potatoes are blanketed by a cold, cheesy, yellow sauce that has the viscosity of Velveeta, minus the ickiness.
Of course, you'll find the usual roster of chifa dishes, Chinese food filtered through Peruvian palates. The saltados—either chicken, seafood, or beef, stir-fried with red onions, tomatoes, French fries, soy sauce and cumin—are passable, but one plate I had was served tepid, despite the fact the chefs can clearly be seen behind a window, cooking with a wok licked by leaping flames. Even more disappointing is the arroz chaufa de pollo, the Peruvian version of chow fun (fried rice). The morsels of chicken were as ropy as burlap, while the rice was as flat as a soda that's lost its fizz.
To jolt it back to life, turn to the substance served in the chilled squirt bottles. It may have the dull-green color of jade, but it isn't guacamole. This is aji, the powerful Peruvian salsa made of milled chiles and herbs. Although it's irascibly harsh if eaten alone, a liberal squeezing revives anything boring. But there's no rule that says you can't use it on stuff that's already tasty. I'm looking at you, chicharron de pollo.
Mario's Peruvian Seafood Restaurant, 15720 Imperial Hwy., La Mirada, (562) 902-8299. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $25-$40, food only.
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