Prior to experiencing Peruvian cuisine, it is impossible to fathom what it could be like. Because of the country's location, I often guessed it would have some variations of other traditional Latin-American dishes--empanadas, tamales and maybe some roasted chicken--but no.
After my first time at Long Beach's El Pollo Imperial, I realized that food from Peru might contain all of the things I imagined in some recognizable fashion, but the full menu is a whole other beast, a mezcla of styles, cultures and ingredients that nearly puts the Carribbean to shame.
The restaurant itself is also an odd pairing of concepts among the liquor stores and fish markets of Atlantic Ave. in North Town. Housed inside a converted KFC on the corner of 60th St., El Pollo Imperial maintained the former inhabitants' signature red shingled roof and functional drive-thru window, but majorly resists the fast-food stigma.
With its exterior appearance and offer of providing quick lomo saltado and fresh ceviche without having to leave the car, I walked through the front door prepared for counter service and Styrofoam plates. Instead, I found a cozy interior and about 15 tables being serviced by the Peruvian owners themselves.
Peru is a country of immigrants and, as such, its cuisine is an adaptation of whatever the Italian, Chinese, Creole, Japanese, German and Spanish newcomers could find to make their familiar favorites. The result for El Pollo Imperial is a selection of pastas, fried rice, and land and sea stir fries that represent the full spectrum of delicious weirdness available from the South American pocket.
The classic Peruvian dish is loma saltado, thin slices of beef stir fried with onions, soy sauce, vinegar and french fries served with a formed scoop of white rice. It'd be easy to compare the concoction to the San Diego-spawned asada fries, however, the potatoes are always too soaked in the spiced sauce and the reheat potential too positive to ever confuse it with its Americanized counterpart.
Each dish ordered off the regular menu comes with a bowl of mind-blowing chicken soup that--dare I say--beats mom's homemade stuff. And before 3 p.m., loma saltado along with other traditional dishes like chaufa de pollo (Chinese-style fried rice) and pollo combinado (a chicken stir fry served atop beans de la olla) are all available in lunch portions (with that soup!) for less than $8.
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If you are a major mariscos snob, though, the ceviche mixto is definitely worth a stray from the lunch menu. Unlike any other ceviche I've ever consumed, the Peruvian version of the raw fish dish comes not only with delicately marinated shrimp and squid, but seemingly random sides of toasted corn, boiled corn, red onions and a piece of yam.
Besides being the most colorful plate on the table, the combination of citrusy Japanese-influenced seafood, puffed and bloated dime-sized "Indian" corn kernels and a palate-cleansing yam is so endlessly fascinating, it will also make you never want to eat the boring Baja stuff again.
There is no way to eat your way through all of Peruvian cuisine in one sitting at El Pollo Imperial, so be prepared to return for other specialties like pollo a la brasa, tallerin verde and even breakfast tamales. Whether they take advantage of the drive-through window or the friendly table service, it's time more locals experience the diverse and unexpected culinary adventures buried in this former KFC on one of Long Beach's main drags.
El Pollo Imperial, 5991 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach, (562) 612-3315, elpolloimperial.com