Jesus, Japan, and Peru – Mario’s Peruvian & Seafood Restaurant

mario's mussels

Mario’s Peruvian and Seafood Restaurant
5786 Melrose Avenue (at Vine Street)
Los Angeles, CA 90038
323.466.4181

There’s a strange relationship between Japan and Peru. My first dinner at Matsuhisa revealed this little connection. Nobu (I can call him Nobu because we’re like this *crosses fingers*) had early culinary training in Japan, and somewhere along the line, he ended up in Peru. But Nobu wasn’t the originator of this Japan-Peru connection, he was there to cater to Japanese men already doing business there. Not sure what they were doing in Peru, but the Peruvian influence, definitely shows in Nobu’s menus.

When I was in business school, the Japan-Peru connection showed itself again. Half of my master’s thesis group were exchange students from Japan, and on their breaks, would travel to Peru for holiday. Not Hawaii, not the Caribbean. Peru. I don’t have the time today to research the history, if there is any at all, but I do find it interesting. Perhaps someone will be able to enlighten me this relationship some time in the future.

And now I find it again with a recent first time visit to Mario’s Peruvian and Seafood Restaurant in Los Angeles, which has an almost cult-like following. Mario is not just a made-up Latin-sounding name to indicate a Latin cuisine. It is, in fact, the name of a real person, owner Mario Tamashiro, a Japanese Peruvian. But unlike Matushisa’s delicate Japanese cuisine with Peruvian influences, Mario’s is straight up Peruvian food.

My only exposure to Peruvian food had been the El Pollo Inka chain – it was a frequent lunch spot when I worked in El Segundo, and I tried it for dinner a few times when it was on the corner of Wilshire and Barrington. El Pollo Inka didn’t blow me away, and I thought it was weird that there were French fries in the food. Incidentally, that location has since been replaced by the Budweiser banner plastered House of Ribs – and that, blows me away with its stupid name, but that’s just a different topic all together.

Mario’s was the chosen setting for an experiment in virtual food freakishness. Dinner would be at 6 o’clcok. I balked. Who eats dinner at 6 o’clock, in LA, and on a weekday, no less?!?! At 6 o’clock, I’m just getting my evening marketing groove on at work, for fox ache! I knew it. I was going to be meeting a bunch of weirdos. Because I’m totally not weird at all. *wink* But Mario is. Dinner has to be at 6 because the restaurant closes at 8 o’clock. Weird.

Trying to get to Mario’s at the appointed hour, I sped down Melrose and passed it twice, not because the sign isn’t bright enough, but it’s in a plaza that doesn’t quite face the main street. The store is wedged between a Popeye’s Chicken and some other typical crumbling strip mall stores, so even with its gaudy red and blue sign and blinking Vegas lights, it doesn’t stand out. The parking lot for the plaza has space for about a half dozen small cars, so when I finally did make it in, I had to exit right back out and look on the street. I parked in front of a decaying church on a seedy side street. I double-checked to make sure I had locked the car doors.

If I hadn’t been paying attention, I would have thought I had actually walked into the church’s dining hall instead of a restaurant – fluorescent overhead lighting, plain tables without cloths, and chairs so Puritanical they were uncomfortable. That description fits many local L.A. strip mall joints that are famous for no-nonsense food, but Mario’s walls are uniquely adorned with ornate golden crucifixes and portraits of a man with long wavy borwn hair who’d probably say grace with you before dinner.

But no one seems to care about the lack of ambience and somewhat oddly religious decor, because even at this early hour, Mario’s is full of diners. Standing patiently as if in line to take their Holy Communion, there are at least four groups waiting in a mysterious invisible roped off line. Thankfully, my group is already seated at a table by the grease-streaked, fingerprinted window, and I just have to plunk myself down.

This was the dinner that got a little hazy with three (was it four?) bottles of wine. Mario’s doesn’t have a wine list, because it’s not really a place to come and enjoy a lovely meal with a bottle or two of wine. This is a place to seriously grub. But they have no corkage fee either, so we took full advantage. No, it wasn’t a miracle. We were drinking our own wine out Mario’s water glasses.

Many have said that the service at Mario’s is slow, but I just can’t comment on the service because our group took a long time before we even got to opening the menu. We took a long time to review the menu. We took a long time to order. If the service was slow, we wouldn’t have noticed. Besides, we were in wine-warp speed.

There were plain white rolls on the table, but since I am desperately trying to get ready for my birthday blowout bash next week and will eventually have to pour this body into an extremely fitted bridesmaid dress in a few months, I didn’t join in the breaking of bread. *sigh* But I felt better about missing those delectable carbs when the accompaniment was a bowl of petite plastic cups of butter with the peel-off tops. The kind that come with pancakes at a truck stop on the I-5.

Our appetizers were mussels and shrimp ceviche, which both tasted fairly good, but not very different from each other. They both had the same heavily citrus-spiked mix of red onion and tomatoes. The ceviche was made from what seemed like pre-cooked shrimp rather than raw shrimp that had been “cooked” by the citric acid. It could have been lemon; or it could have been lime. It actually tasted l
ike orange juice. On the plate, there was also a single plain boiled potato and section of corn on the cob. Potatoes are abundant in Peruvian cuisine, and there’s certainly some interesting culinary history there, too.

Mussels were fresh, as was the salsa cruda piled atop each one. There were chopped peppers in there with the tomatoes and red onions, but they couldn’t have been jalapenos. I didn’t get any heat.

Heat, however, is blazingly apparent in a large squeeze bottle on the table filled with a subtly verdant sauce that looks like it could be liquid guacamole, but is actually a puree of chilies, cilantro, garlic, and probably other things that I can’t identify. I mean, I think we were on the Basa by then and my senses were starting to numb. If I were Peruvian, this green salsa would be my sriracha – douse everything.

Tomatoes and red onions are ubiquitous ingredients in Mario’s kitchen. Like the appetizers, our trinity of main dishes all included them, though to varying degrees. Though the appetizers tasted like each other, the main dishes were all very different and interesting. We ordered by number – why else would the items be numbered if they weren’t to be ordered that way? Number 26 is the famous Saltado de Mariscos – a stir fry of octopus, squid, shrimp and vegetables. And there they were. French fries. The flavor of the dish was deep, but the cephalopods were a little chewier than I like. That’s right, I said cephalopods.

Number 14 is another well-known dish. Lomo Saltado is a beef and French fries, sautéed with red onions. Though it’s a stir-fry, it’s nice to see the care Mario’s takes to match the ingredients with each other. Strips of beef and potatoes for French fries are uniform in shape and size, and red onions are cut longitudinally to maintain their integrity as they cook. However, the beef was cooked to well-done, leaving it slightly dry for my taste. But that’s just an excellent excuse for a gratuitous squeeze of the green bottle.

Pescado was the third dish, but I’ll be quite honest, it was totally unmemorable, and that’s not just the wine talking. I can’t even remember the dish’s name nor number. It might have been Number 29, the Pescado Frito, but I think it was the Number 30, Pescado Churriano. 29…30. Frito…Churriano. Let’s call the whole thing awfully unremarkable.

By the time we left (almost 8), Mario’s was starting to shut down, and still there were a few patient diners waiting for a table, one of which we had monopolized for almost two hours. Even though I had parked in front of a church, Jesus had watched over my meal, and I had softly cursed “Oh, God…” several times the next morning as I smacked myself in the forehead remembering all my wine-induced antics from the night before, I can’t say that Mario’s was a religious experience for me. But I can’t say it was my last supper there either, since I didn’t really get the full food experience. I’ll be back to give it a second chance. Hey, that’s what Jesus would do.

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  • Sunabe

    “The Japanese began arriving in Peru in the late 1800’s. Many factors motivated the Japanese to immigrate to Peru. At the time of the Sino-Japanese war, the economic state of Japan was poor. Japanese immigrated to Peru to find new job opportunities. Because of the poor economic conditions in Japan, a surplus of skilled farmers in Japan occurred. Peru provided a new job market that was accomodating to the Japanese farmers.” Hope this gives an insight. Taken from:
    http://www.wfu.edu/users/muroaf1/asia-pacific/background.htm

  • Rachael

    And potatoes are originally from Peru, (well, that region anyway) which is why they show up everywhere. :-)

  • mireille

    beautiful food, as usual. But For Fox Ache, LOLOLOL. *plan to appropriate that into my own language*

  • david

    Peru also recently had a Japanese President:
    Alberto Kenya Fujimori (born July 28, 1938) was president of Peru from July 28, 1990, until November 17, 2000, when he fled to Japan as allegations of far-reaching corruption in his administration began to emerge. From Japan, he submitted his resignation by fax, but the Peruvian Congress rejected his resignation and removed him from office.

    Mario is actually freinds with Nobu. I like the pescado macho. It’s the fried fish with seafood on top. Give it another try. The decor is courtesy of a Campo’s Tacos. You can still see holes in the floor where the salsa bar was.

  • sarah

    i looooooove all of you guys – lazy lazy lazy me…but i love that you can share all this history/knowledge.

    it rocks.

  • Anonymous

    Pretty interesting that they close so early. Maybe it’s just the weekdays.

  • elmomonster

    I love Peruvian!

    I soooo want to try this place, but seeing as how I’m in Irvine, I’ll probably have to find some free weekend night to do it…no freakin’ way I can make it there by 8 pm on a weekday.

    Thanks for the review!!

  • Borschtrider

    Peru may have been culturally & politically influenced by Japanese immigration, but culinarily, it’s all Chinese. There are (literally) thousands of chifas (Chinese restaurants) throughout Peru & their cuisine — including Mario’s — contains strong Chinese influences. Fried potatoes plus stir-fry = heaven.

  • Anonymous

    Don’t forget the African influences, they are by far older and unique. Ask about “anticuchos”, “picarones” and “turron de dona pepa”. The peruvian tamales are out of this world too. Talking about Peru is talking about Spain, Italy, Japan, China, Africa and America altogether at the rhythm of African-Peruvian music.

  • sarah

    thanks, anonymous!

    i’ll definitely try some more peruvian soon, and will look out for the african influence – though i am not sure what that would be, since the only african i’ve ever tried is ethiopian and moroccan!

  • Schatzmann

    Peru is a country of coasts, deserts, mountains and jungles like no other on earth. It is so rich in Asian influences, like CHIFA- a traditional Chinese Peruvian cuisine that is starting to be as well known in America as regular Peruvian cuisine and Japanese Peruvian. Many say after trying Chifa that it outdoes regular Chinese cuisine- Go figure.

    Peruvian food is booming in American, restaurants, from Gourmet to Counter like are packed day and night with Peruvians and from all over the world.

    I live in Switzerland and Peru is a very high top holiday destination for it’s people, history, and of coarse food-

    Peruvian food is SO popular now more than ever because of its wide variety from meats, to seafood to chicken, to potato. Afterall Peru has the largest variety of potatoes on earth. Also a lot of it’s grains such as quinoa and canchita peruana and maiz morado used in chicha morada are being very much acclaimed in medical research benefiting anything from heart disease to diabetes.

    It’s cuisine is booming so much in popularity now that it is being discovered world wide that many chefs and culinary experts are saying it is top 3 in the world.

    What can you say- Peru is just simply amazing!

  • Heather

    I live in Miami, and I gotta tell you

    Peruvian food is always on tv, suddenly popping out on every street, in the markets, EVERYWHERE.

    I tried it recently a few months ago and I gotta tell ya I am HOOKED. It is by far my most adored savouring food! I can’t stop eating it. I just read the poster above and I did try the Chifa and it is so much better than regular Chinese!

    Try the chihokai chicken (dont know how to spell) and the kumloowonton.

    For regular peruvian try cebiche, jalea, pescado a lo macho, anticuchos, tacu tacu, papa a la huancaina and just EVERYTHING YOU POSSIBLY CAN EAT!

    I still have to try japanese peruvian, but nobu in south beach is the most popular restaurant in the entire city it is just so damn hard to get a table!

  • sarah

    yeah – i think it’s about time i go back for a littl peruvian food. though, i wish there were somwthing closer to the westside. mario’s is in hollywood, and well, miami is even further! lol! ;)

  • Mie

    Dios!!! Que Loco!!!! Mario es mi tio!!!! Hace mucho que no lo veo!!! recuerdo la ultima vez que estuve por LA y fui a comer al restaurant. Les comento que lo mejor que hace es el LOMO SALTADO!! TRADICION FAMILIAR =) Aun recuerdo cuando fue de visita una de las ultimas veces a Lima antes de que yo me mudara para Barcelona y en una cena que se organizo en casa de mi tio Fernando, mi tio Mario hizo Lomo Saltado para toda la familia… y les juro que somo MUCHOSSSSS!!!

    un besote a todos y Buen
    Provecho!!!

    Mie Tamashiro

  • MariteinLA

    There is nothing like Peruvian food. The lomo saltado is really a gastronomic delight. The moment you taste the juicy beef, crunchy onions and flavor-infused fries you are transported to a world of no return. I simply love this place. I just found out today that they opened a new location in La Mirada, CA ( 15720 Imperial Hwy. La Mirada 90638).

  • Giovanni

    Next time try the cebiche de calamar
    followed by a chicharron de pescado
    and then a seco de cordero.

    Most reknown Japanese influenced Peruvian dishes are Tiradito,
    Pulpo al Olivo and Yakitori (chicken anticuchos)

  • Tom

    I typically judge a restaurant by tasting their ceviche. Specially the restaurants that focus on seafood. I am a “Chalaco” with an appetite for excellent ceviche. I can imagine that people get crazed about lomo saltado, but it is not too hard to put together as it is cooked, and most of the time Peruvian cuisine or cocina criolla is cooked. Now getting a plate of ceviche with fresh fish from the day and not overcooked by the lime is where is at with the right portions “choclo” and potatoes, etc, and seasoning.

    I can imagine it would be hard to put together such plate with fresh fish from the day being so important. I remember visiting my poor family from Ancon, Peru where we had fishermen in the family bring us fresh fresh fish from the sea, stripped and cooked right there in front of us.

    Nowadays when i visit all these funky restaurants with weird mix and cocktail styled servings of ceviche or maybe places like Mario do not even come to close to par to a basic serving of ceviche, you know just fish, potatoes, onions, aji, etc but the quality being superb.

    After all, as a Chalaco, Peruvian, I have come to realize that Ceviche is more like a signature dish from Peru.

    So when you travel down to Peru, dont get lomo saltado, lol, go to the beach and look for poor looking restaurants right on the water, where you can see where the fish is being cut and sliced. They will make you the real ceviche there.

    and for those that are well connected: well try this:

    Muchame de Lobo de Mar to go with your Ceviche.
    ( Illegal )

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