One Hot Mama
Choza Mama fires up Colorado Boulevard with hot aji peppers in a banquet of authentic Peruvian dishes.
By Bradley Tuck 08/01/2010
Oscar Wilde once famously said, “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.” And, guilty of the sin of depth as I am, when I approached Choza Mama Peruvian Restaurant and Bakery, I found myself sizing up the place, somewhat unfairly. Walking from Fair Oaks Boulevard, one passes numerous restaurants with patio seating and white tablecloths against an Old Pasadena backdrop of pretty architecture, all of it giving off a distinct whiff of a European metropolis. Choza Mama doesn’t have a patio. But what it has instead — more welcoming than any shaded terrace — is Sonia Linares.
Linares is the matriarch who presides here, bobbing from table to table, checking on customers’ orders, directing the friendly waitstaff and actually pulling up a chair to chat with guests. The Pasadena eatery is an outgrowth of the original Choza Mama in Burbank, which is packed with studio people like Jay Leno and George Lopez at lunchtime. With an all-you-can-eat buffet for $9.95, Pasadena seems bound to follow suit.
And now, thanks to Sonia, I know a little about Peruvian cuisine. Peruvian cuisine is a mirror of the country’s ethnic make-up. Africans arrived as slaves during the Spanish Colonial period, the Chinese arrived in the 1850s and waves of settlers from Europe, notably Italians, have all left their mark on Peru’s food. What’s unusual is the way these culinary traditions have been assimilated and fused into something uniquely Peruvian.
As soon as we sat at our table, we were brought small fluffy bread rolls and a selection of spicy condiments in which to dip them. What chili is to Mexico, ají is to Peru: It’s their hot pepper, used to make a variety of salsas and spreads unique to the region, varying greatly in heat intensity. My favorite was rocoto, a bright orange sauce that seems at first benign but then creeps up on you like love and burns almost as much. The sweetest pain.
Now for the entrées: The ceviche mixto at Choza Mama is a tasty medley of fresh sole, mussels, shrimp, scallops, squid and octopus, marinated in a leche de tigre sauce — the traditional citrus marinade in which ceviche “cooks.” It’s served in the traditional Peruvian style, with sweet potato wedges, corn on the cob and boiled potato. The dish is bright and fresh, with beautifully tender seafood and the fresh perfume of chopped cilantro. Speaking of that rocoto sauce, with its heart in the Pacific and its feet in Italy, I moved on to the Rocoto Shrimp, Scallops and Linguini. Italian immigrants brought pasta to Peru and, as is the norm, it was blended with existing culinary traditions. The rocoto in this is mixed with cream, which makes the heat creep up on you even more stealthily. The first bite seems almost bland, but then the flavors start to dance on your tongue and you can’t stop eating it. The portions here are large and this one is rich and filling, so get it to share.
Saltado should be well known to anyone who has eaten at a Peruvian restaurant. Meat or seafood is sautéed with onions and tomatoes and served over rice with French fries. It’s a big pile of savory, almost umami. Here the lomo saltado consists of filet mignon sautéed with the usual combination of ingredients. It was delicious. My personal preference would have been for the steak to be a little less cooked. Maybe it’s something one could bring up when ordering.
Dessert was an amazing variation on a flan. Most cuisines have some variation on a cooked custard, and the Portuguese have pastéis de nata. I don’t know at what point in time somebody decided that Nirvana could be achieved with the whipping together of eggs, cream and sugar, but for me it ranks with the invention of the jet engine. And crema voltada is the first-class cabin. There’s a trace of coconut milk in there and a delicate touch of cinnamon. A cold blob of rum raisin ice cream dresses the top.
“We have live Peruvian music and dancing” on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, Sonia says, as she grabs the hem of her skirt, flicking it and clacking her heels on the floor. Then off she dances to the kitchen, laughing, on her way to make another customer very happy.