Picanteria Ariquepeña El Misti

Not many Peruvians live in Orange County—the 2000 Census guessed around 4,000—yet the Peruvian restaurant scene is so cutthroat that most must distinguish themselves by regional specialties just to survive. Nory's in Anaheim, for instance, brings people in by marinating the searing ceviche platters of Peru's coast, while Huntington Beach's Caravana Chicken ensures its monthly rent by smoking up Lima's succulent pollo a la brasa (roasted hens); Inka Mama over in Foothill Ranch, meanwhile, gabacho-fies its mother country's Asian-Latino recipes for the South County curious.

But rocketing Peruvian provincialism toward an Andean stratosphere is the backwardly titled Picantería Ariquepeña El Misti (El Misti Ariquepan Restaurant), an only-in-Anaheim jewel plopped between a seedy liquor mart and a Polynesian dance studio. Little more than a long dining hall adorned with WPA-style farmer murals, El Misti prepares the diet of Arequipa, a city of about 750,000 acclaimed for its desiccated, hearty dishes and thunderously flavored drinks, where llama and guinea pig are the meats du jour.

Unfortunately, the latter two delicacies aren't available at El Misti, but nearly everything else is virginal for even the sluttiest palate. The complimentary appetizer isn't the chilled Velveeta-drenched papas a la huancaina found in Peruvian joints from Cuzco to Cypress, but rather a plate stacked with swollen, boiled kernels of choclo (a rubbery type of corn) and meaty thumb-sized beans. El Misti does offer the requisite Inka Kola, but owners Juan and Hilda Copara prefer that you swig either of their freshly prepared chichas: morada, a clove-spiked lavender punch made from purple corn, or jora, a fermented barley booze that stings and swings like the finest cider of your life.

Surprises dot all sections of El Misti's menu, from breakfast to soup to dinner; in fact, I nominate El Misti as the rarest restaurant in the Western United States, so region-specific are its entrées. Weekends bring adobo ariquepeño, pork cubes marinated in chicha de jora until the meat becomes more blazing liquid than smooth protein. Most meals come with ocopa, fried potato halves smeared with a musky walnut-and-shrimp-based orange-brown sauce that's as dazzlingly intricate as the Nazca symbols. Lamb, beef and chicken platters are roasted, marinated and steamed into tastes you thought perished with the Incas; they come slathered with different-flavored ají sauces that either sear or smart. (The Malaya beef possesses the same smoked rampage present in the best carne asada.) The buttery, delicate sarsa de patitas, however, come sauce-free, the better to impress with its au natural velvety texture (sarsa de patitas are what Americans know and loathe as pickled pig knuckles—their loss).

Even dessert brings out rarities: lime-green ice cream made from the impossibly tart lucuma fruit and butternut squash fritters—Thanksgiving meets Coney Island. But El Misti offers Peruvian standards as well for the unadventurous: coconut-milk-based chupe soups, the buttery stir-fried chow meins known as tallarines and savory pollo a brasa. All good versions, really—but why would you eat anything else on the planet when the prospect of pig knuckles is but a request away? Unless it was llama, of course.


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