Miraflores Peruvian Express: El Charmer

As you drive west on Westminster Avenue, past Goldenwest Street, Little Saigon fades into the background, and Westminster turns into a time warp. Italian and Mexican restaurants start outnumbering pho palaces; the city's last working-class white dive bars begin to emerge. Shopping plazas—the dominant form of commerce in the city—turn into storefronts that show their age. It's in this unassuming district where South Americans are asserting their identity as nowhere else in OC.

Oh, it's just a minor wave, really: the Colombian grocery store Sara's Mercado, a couple of attorneys, and I'm even counting a Costa Rican restaurant that closed years ago even though it was technically Central American. Joining the emerging area last month is Miraflores Peruvian Express, a dive that transformed its drab strip-mall setting into a charming wonderland. Daily specials are hand-written in multicolored fonts on a blackboard and sandwich board; the interior is ringed with photos and silhouettes of Lima's Miraflores coastal district, depicting its most iconic features, including the world-famous El Beso (The Kiss) statue of an embracing couple on a bench located in the appropriately titled Love Park. And, more often than not, the two young ladies who run Miraflores enlist their younger female relatives to help take orders—charming to the max.

Even better than Miraflores' aesthetic, though, is its food—unapologetically Peruvian and outstanding. Given the small kitchen space, it offers a limited menu, so you can expect dishes that have penetrated OC's palate: awesome pollo à la brasa, puckering ceviches, spreads of tallarín that resemble the tastiest mounds of noodles since a trip through Little Italy. Even better are rarities such as anticuchos (skewers of beef heart as delicate as tongue) and aguadito de pollo, a chicken soup turned nearly emerald thanks to the spicy presence of ají; the $5 bowl is large enough to feed three. Miraflores is even offering turrones (a massive nougat bar), and I could've sworn the owners made a tray of botifarra, Peru's most famous sandwich, the other day. . . .

Miraflores is planning even more—there's a big counter that seems to be getting prepped for to-go meals, a smaller one already hosting empanadas, and the large dining room and flat-screen televisions scream for karaoke nights. And when your meal is finished, as you waddle out the door, the owners give you a business card and candies of chicha morada, as delightful as the entirety of this place. Viva Little South America!

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