At Centrál Coastal Peruvian, the new Laguna Beach restaurant up the street from the bustle of Main Beach, you won't see any of the usual trappings of a Peruvian joint. There are no pan flutes on the soundtrack, no token paintings of Machu Picchu on the walls, no stuffed llamas akin to those Casa Inka in Fountain Valley puts in its doorway to greet customers. Space here, as it is in all of Laguna Beach, is at a premium. In fact, it's so cramped the servers are trained to let you pass when you get up to go to the restroom. A bar takes up most of the real estate, with a sea of the usual Laguna Beach regulars of mostly blondes and older gents swirling wine goblets. If the word Peruvian weren't stenciled on the window, you might not know it from Sundried Tomato Café, which is what the place was before the owners of Inkas, Anna Driggs and her mother Ana Montoya, took over.
When I heard Driggs and Montoya were planning to open here, I gathered it would be the upmarket version of Inkas Irvine. They initially planned to call it "Inkas Bistro," but "Centrál" seems more apropos of what they're actually trying to do here: sell Peruvian food to a moneyed crowd who may be used to fancy French sauces, but not necessarily pollo a la brasa.
For the benefit of these folks, the aguadito, for instance, doesn't just come out; it's assembled tableside, with the soup poured into a bigger bowl from a smaller one. This kind of presentation would be kind of overkill for a homey chicken soup if the cilantro-tinted green broth wasn't still rocket-hot. But, because the rice and veggies are shown initially separated from the broth, it does create a sense of appreciation that this dish is not just soup. It's closer to a hearty stew. Added to that, Centrál's aguadito doesn't skimp on richness and could actually be considered oily, if you care that the top millimeter of the liquid is essentially melted chicken fat.
When you do get around to ordering the pollo a la brasa from the menu, it's in code. It's cryptically called "Centrál's P.A.B." Though it's still described as "rotisserie chicken," what you're served are two pieces of hen exquisitely butchered: one piece a leg-and-thigh, the other a Frenched breast. Don't eat it with your hands; knife-and-fork it, all the while slathering every inch of the meat with some ají sauce, the green chile blend you're supposed to use on everything, especially the flaky empanadas.
And it's the ají that's the lifeblood of Centrál, the unshakable constant that proclaims more loudly than anything else that, yes, this is a real Peruvian restaurant. The hotness isn't toned down, even as it's served alongside the butter for your bread. You get more ají when you order the anticuchos, the Peruvian equivalent to kebabs. You want to dunk your skewered beef hearts, shrimp, or cumin-and-paprika-smeared char-kissed chicken into its jade-green depths, ignoring the two other less indelibly memorable sauces that are also served on the side.
About the only thing you don't use the ají on is the ceviche, here made with flawless streaks of sea bass acid-cooked in a frothy, lip-puckering liquid made from lime juice, onion and chile–a concoction Peruvians lovingly call "leche de tigre." Just as legitimate is the chaufa, Centrál's take on Peruvian fried rice, even if it doesn't have a grain of rice in it. Instead, the kitchen uses quinoa (a staple in the Peruvian diet before American hipsters claimed it) and wok-tosses the tiny starch bubbles in a soy-sauce-based stir-fry topped with slices of lotus root and fried quail eggs. It's not only the best chaufa I've had in recent memory, but also the best application of quinoa I've ever eaten, period.
Centrál's most successful dish is the shrimp tacu tacu, three gigantic sautéed prawns served with stir-fried tomato wedges and onions patiently cooked to absorb classic saltado seasonings, then perched atop a spicy mix of rice and beans surrounded by a moat of a thick sauce made from rocoto peppers. This dish, along with a deconstructed cheesecake with maracuya (passion fruit), works because it has it both ways: pretty enough to appeal to the Laguna Beach ruling class and bold enough to satisfy someone from Lima.
But still, guess what's currently the most popular dish at Centrál according to Yelp? The Tomato Tower–a salad with burrata, avocado and balsamic, whose only Peruvian component is the choclo. It goes to prove you can bring a real Peruvian restaurant to the Laguna Beach elite, but you can't make 'em try the saltado.
Centrál Coastal Peruvian, 361 Forest Ave., Ste. 103, Laguna Beach, (949) 715-0801; centralcoastalperuvian.com. Open Mon.-Wed., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Meal for two, $50-75, food only. Beer and wine.
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.