You may have been to the food court about a block away from John Wayne Airport, home to the glowing, golden deep-fried fish at the Chippy and the wonderful garlic-festooned plate of seafood linguine at Franco's Pasta Cucina. But did you know about the Peruvian ceviche specialist just around the corner? Attached like a vestigial limb to the same building and under a sign that only says, “Cafe,” Renzo's A Taste of Peru has developed something of a cult following on the Internet, a blooming of review love by bloggers and commentators the likes of which hasn't been seen in the city since Harry's Deli and the Lime Truck.
No big mystery: There's a lot to like at Renzo's, starting with the man himself. Renzo Macchiavello is the consummate charmer; his is the kind of presence that announces itself before you even step into his domain, his voice carrying like an operatic tenor. He is fiercely proud of his native Peru, its surfing team in particular, and he loops video of the team's triumphant victory at the Billabong ISA World Surfing Games on a flat-screen. More than a few signed surfing action shots hang on the walls. And when he's not cooking, he's chasing waves himself. The squirt bottles of aji even feature a cartoon Renzo riding a surfboard. His version of the quintessential Peruvian condiment isn't as numbing as the so-called Gringo Killer at Inka Grill. Still, Renzo's aji is easily one of the peppiest in OC.
Dark green like pesto, but more potent than chimichurri, you can dollop this multipurpose cure-all on anything and everything, passing it around like peyote, using it most frequently on the cut rounds of baguette put out in a communal basket. Another communal treat—roasted, salted kernels of cancha—comes out of a big bowl with a scoop.
Ceviches are the first—and perhaps only—thing you need to order at Renzo's. Start with the immaculate ceviche de pescado: cubes of white fish acid-cooked in prodigious amounts of citrus juice until the fish shines like porcelain and assumes a chew as firm as your inner cheek. Ask for it as spicy as possible to add a pleasurable burn to each bracing bite. No matter the spice level, the dish supplants Hawaiian poke as the food I'll crave when I think of the beach. Plump scallops, shrimp and squid marinate themselves to a pillow-soft tenderness in the ceviche de mariscos. A third and equally estimable shrimp-only ceviche introduces the fruitiness of cubed mango to an already-refreshing concoction.
Outside the ceviche realm, Renzo's treats seafood with the respect of a sushi bar. In the parihuela, the Andean answer to bouillabaisse, the scallops are firm and fresh, mixed with shrimp and squid in a slightly thick yellow broth in which bits of diced red pepper, carrots and peas pop up in vivid bursts. The same seafood threesome is just as compelling as protein for the pescado a lo macho gravy that smothers a hidden slab of steamed white fish you can spoon up like pudding. Scallops and shrimp also star in the arroz con mariscos, the seafood picking up the slack of its seasoned but ultimately gummy rice—a starch neither creamy like risotto nor toothsome like paella.
Since this is Irvine and it is the John Wayne area, Renzo's must nod toward office drones. The sandwiches employ hard-crusted, domed rolls stuffed with shredded iceberg, pickled onions and a thin slice of cooked sweet potato almost everyone will initially mistake for a tomato. The ahi tuna wrap—raw fish, lettuce and crunchy noodles wound tightly inside a pliant green tortilla—is better than the roast-beef sandwich. But Renzo, that rascally genius, still sneaks in Peru: The potato salad that is offered with the sandwiches is really papa a la Huancaina, the classic chilled dish of boiled potatoes draped with a thick, spicy, homemade Cheez Whiz-like sauce. Eat it with traditional aji de gallina, chicken shredded to pulp and cooked in walnut sauce, and wrap it up in the same tortilla as the drones—a creation specifically designed for people who don't have time to eat it properly with rice. It's perfect for enjoying in front of the computer or in your car on the way to the beach—your choice!
This review appeared in print as “Life's a Ceviche: Peruvian surfer Renzo Macchiavello creates Incan favorites for the blogger and necktie crowds.”
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.