Peruvian food is a cuisine for all seasons. When summer hits and a simple walk outside makes you sweat, there’s nothing I crave more than the refreshing, spicy tang of Peru’s national dish: ceviche. And when the Southern California weather dips as much into winter as it’s going to get and I start to get all sore-throat sick – ahem, last week, ahem – Peru again comes to the rescue with its various stews and soups.
As I tossed and turned in a feverish sleep recently, the water falling from the sky outside, all I could dream about was slurping down a cup of comforting aguadito, aka Peruvian chicken and rice soup. However, the soup in my dreams was not the complimentary portion of the savory cilantro-based soup doled out daily at El Pollo Imperial, that former KFC in North Long Beach and my usual spot to satisfy Peruvian cravings. This time, I wanted my aguadito from Charo’s Peruvian Cuisine, the city’s oft-forgotten other Peruvian restaurant, if only because it’s easy to miss as the only non-chain place to eat in the entire Long Beach Towne Center. I probably would have missed it myself all those years ago if I hadn’t been hungry while walking down the main promenade that slices through the eye of the storm and makes the Edwards Cinema look like a warm castle at the end of a long journey.
If all I’d wanted was a coffee (there’s a Starbucks next door) or a dry, lifeless burger (Islands is across the way) before that movie, I’m sure I never would have seen Charo’s. It’s set back from everything else with an empty patio and tinted windows that keep most of the curious at bay. But tinted windows are no deterrent for me, so I ventured in, thinking maybe Charo’s would have quick-service pollo rostizado combos or, like El Pollo Imperial, a super casual sit-down experience.
Instead, I discovered a Peruvian hideout right in the thick of a monument to American commercialization, a self-sustaining world where pan flutes buzz through the speakers, Incan pottery and paintings line the walls and a sweet lady named Charo is the owner and sole server, happily slinging salty-sweet lomo saltados, herbaceous tallarín verdes and paella-like chaufas to the borderline-Lakewood set.
It takes a few visits (knowing Spanish helps too) to get Charo to tell you that her real specialties are hiding in the full page of seafood dishes, all based on recipes from her mother and grandmother who would spend all day cooking in their small beach village a few hundred miles north of Lima. She’ll also tell you that two of her sisters own the OC chain of Inka Mama’s restaurants, which they opened after being inspired by their other sister, who owns Inka Grill, OC’s oldest Peruvian joint. Charo’s itself was an Inka Grill when the center first opened in 1999, but since 2004, it’s been the sole outpost of Charo’s interpretations on the family’s food.
Some of the dishes – including the Macho Fish, the aji de gallina and chaufa de mariscos – are similar to what you’ll find at her sisters' restaurants, but Charo makes an effort to be different by skipping the roasted chicken plates and offering anticucho skewers, Italian-tinged shrimp scampi and her mother’s spicy chicken stew, all with a much less corporate, more homemade feel.
When my sickness subsided enough to venture into public this past weekend, I braved parking at a mall during the holidays to return to Charo’s. I ordered a cup of the aguadito to soothe my still-burning throat and downed half a bottle of aji sauce with my complimentary bread to clear the sinuses. Feeling experimental, I asked Charo for a recommendation (lest I eat all the aguadito in the kitchen) and ended up with a restoring cauldron of parihuela, a spicy Peruvian soup that’s partway between the daintiness of a French bouillabaisse and the sass of an Italian cioppino. Winter might be made more bearable by Peruvian soups, but it’s even better with Charo to guide the way.
Charo's Peruvian Cuisine, 7563 Carson St., Long Beach, (562) 627-0087
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.