The possiblity that our Friday afternoon lunch restaurant, El Hatuchay, is named after a hotel sent me into obsessive-compulsive mode this afternoon to find the true meaning of "El Hatuchay." Who cares that I had to close out the month at work? There had to be a more glamourous significance to the name, perhaps the moniker of an indiginous person, maybe someone who meant something to the people of Peru, but the more I looked, the more it kept coming back the same old way: hotel, hotel, hotel. Well gee, the hotel must be named after something, I thought, but not even the hotel's own website could enlighten me. Eventually, I let it go, otherwise I'd never finish this post, but please, if anyone knows that there is a significance to the name "El Hatuchay" other than that of a hotel, please let me know!
Whatever its name may mean, whether it's really a just a hotel or if it's some sort of Incan figurehead, for the sake of today's post it's just a Peruvian hole-in-the-wall in North Hollywood. It's located on a stretch of Sherman Way in North Hollywood that I normally wouldn't just hang out in--I even get a little weirded out when I have to drop off my car at the shop--but it's also located on a street that I consider one of the best single streets at least in the San Fernando Valley for cheap, ethnic eats. North Hollywood's Sherman Way's got everything from wonderful Thai joints to tasty Mexican taquerias to Vietnamese Pho to El Salvadoran pupuserias. And now, to add to the list, Peruvian cuisine! The whole world on a street--I love it. The place was busy (a good sign if there ever was one), it's patrons mainly local ethnic families and blue collar workers, which made us stick out like a sore thumb. Flags of the various North, Central and South American nations line its walls amongst fake plants; faux Incan rock carvings line its back wall and on its ceiling sits a bright neon lit sun.
We've all had Peruvian food before from other places but El Hatuchay's menu seemed a little overwheling to us upon first glance. A regular menu, with its dishes categorized by meat-type, was given to us along with a $6.90 All Day Specials menu with the same dishes from the regular menu listed out in a big page-long list full of itty-bitty words. There were a color pictures of some of the more popular dishes around the perimeter, which seemed to confuse the issue more than not, as it was sort of a match by numbers type of game. Hmm, this picture says number 7, which is...*pointed finger moving towards the worded part of the menu*...Pollo Al Vino, which is...sauteed chunk chicken, onions, tomatoes, bell pepper and rice! Whoa-kay, next? Our hungry little selves poured over all the selections, wondering how many possible combinations of sauteed meat, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, cilantro, peppers, and rice there could possibly be. My friend literally closed her eyes and decided to order whatever her finger landed on. Hey, whatever works.
I really wanted to like the mint-green colored aji, a chile puree that came in a plastic squeeze bottle, but as you may or may not know, I have a really evil aversion to cilantro. I've tried this stuff before at El Pollo Inka and just couldn't get myself to eat it although the people I was with liked it so much that they were practically drinking it. It was no different at El Hatuchay: my friends raved about it, putting squirt after squirt on the rolls they gave us pre-meal. I put a small squirt of the stuff on my roll trying to convince myself that maybe cilantro is just an acquired taste that i could get used to. I really liked the creamy, spicy base of the aji but just couldn't get past the nails-on-the-chalkboard cilantro flavor. Oh well, I tried.
Rolls and the aji that I wanted so much to like!
At least I could pick the cilantro out of the ceviche de pescado, a cool, tangy medley of fish, lime juice, onions, cilantro and sliced potatoes. I'm not exactly sure what kind of fish was used for this--it looked like snapper to us--but it was extremly fresh, and nicely tenderized by the acidity of the lime and onion juices. We particularly enjoyed the two types of corn that flanked both sides of our zesty marinated fish treat--there were kernels of regular corn and larger, crunchy kernels of something that seemed like hominy. An odd treat--sort of like eating corn nuts soaked in lime and fish juice.
Tantilizingly tangy ceviche
There was literally half a crab in our parihuela, a Peruvian boulliabaise of sorts. We noticed a bowl of this steamy orangey-red broth on one of the tables when we walked in, and though it was about 100 degrees outside, could not resist ordering it. The seafood in it--fish, mussels, squid, octopus and crab--ranged from really fresh to not so fresh, depending on what it was, and the broth was a little reminiscent of that of menudo. I expected the broth to have a little more kick, but it was still tasty, and nothing a few squeezes of lime couldn't take care of. Floating in our parihuela was some chopped cooked cilantro, which I surprisingly did not taste. Could it be that I'm getting used to it??? I don't think so.
Peruvian boulliabaise: parihuela
If you order from the long list of $6.90 All Day Specials that I mentioned earlier, you get a bonus potato appetizer with your meal: a choice of papas a la huancaina or causa. We'd ordered two specials and decided to pick one of each appetizer. The little plate of papas a la huancaina tasted like cold sliced potatoes with a milder version of Cheez-Whiz glopped on top--a dish that we didn't get but couldn't stop picking at for whatever odd reason. Our other appetizer, the causa, was sort of like a potato-tuna mold. A small cube of packed yellow waxy potatoes with thin layers of canned tuna and olives inside sat on the plate next to some thinly sliced pickled red onions, a dish that was surprisingly good and a way better use of potatoes than the papas a la huancaina in my opinion. If this were an Iron Chef Battle Potatoes, whoever made the causa would win for sure!
Cheez-Whizzy papas a la huancaina
Causa: who woulda known that a potato and tuna mold could taste so good?
Luck was on my friend's side when her finger randomly landed on the tacu tacu con bistek. OK, so the bistek was just allright--a little tough--but the tacu tacu, a fried mixture of rice and black beans must have contained crack in it because it was amazingly delicious. It came in the shape of a mound, a little weird looking, and tasted of perfectly salted velvety beans mellowed out by fluffy rice and a nice hint of oil. Thin slices of pickled onion accompanied this dish, adding a little cool tang to the saltiness of the bistek and tacu tacu.
Amazingly good tacu tacu con bistek
I wasn't too impressed with the bistek encebollado, the other special we ordered. It was kind of like a typical lomo saltado, but with the beef and potatoes left intact. The beef was overly dry, and the sauteed onions seemed a bit much. Despite the dryness of the beef, the dish was a bit too saucy, with a lot of the brown sauce running into our mound of steamed white rice and making it overly salty and soggy. The best part was the lightly fried potato halves that came with, nothing too special, but good in their simplicity.
Not too impressive: bistek encebollado
El Hatuchay's service is friendly, but runs at a slow and leisurely pace, so don't expect to be back to wherever you have to be quickly. Which makes me think that perhaps El Hatuchay really does stand for a hotel near Machu Picchu. After all, who wouldn't want to be vacationing in the Andes?
12853 Sherman Way
North Hollywood, CA 91605