100 N. Ashwood Ave.
Behind the full-length curtains covering Bonanos’ windows lives a muted terracotta cave adorned with large black-and-white, softly focused images of Peruvian produce.
Some of the photographs are produce you’d recognize, but others, like the herb hucatay, you might not. It’s fun to see ingredients you’ll soon taste.
The menus are printed large and easy to read — nice not to squint
for a change. The room quickly livened as our effervescent waiter approached. Once he discovered we’d never been to Bonanos, he was a dream of descriptions, explanations and suggestions. When he confided that he used to be a soap opera director in Peru, his impeccable direction made sense. Rarely have I enjoyed discussing a menu so much!
We started our exploration with two Peruvian drinks. Mine looked like grape Kool-Aid and my friend’s like Sunny D. My chicha morada was made from purple corn (maize morada) and pineapple. It had a sharp citrus tang with a hint of cinnamon at the end of each sip. My friend’s bright-hued maracuya (whose name translates to passion fruit) was extraordinarily refreshing. They also serve Inca Kola, a Peruvian soda.
At the heart of both Bonano’s interior and cuisine lies a large industrial rotisserie oven from Peru. This is where they cook their whole crispy-skinned chicken over hardwoods. You can pick up a whole, half or quarter with sides to take home, and prices are quite reasonable. It’s one of the staple offerings, and Bonano’s first location in Northridge has sparked heated debates online about who has the best rotisserie in the Los Angeles area. For our luncheon we focused on other dishes, but in one of them, this smoky chicken was the exotic star.
Appetizers range from a red snapper ceviche served with sweet potatoes to marinated beef hearts on a skewer. There are light dishes and heavy ones, plenty of seafood, four soups and a plethora of starches, like yucca, rice and potatoes.
A basket of sliced white bread arrived with two dipping sauces. The yellow sauce was pure fire made from the rocoto pepper. The green sauce from the hucatay herb and cilantro was subtler and delivered what my friend dubbed a latent burn.
“Oooo, I like how it’s so creamy, then it’s like, ‘Oh, hello! You’ve come to visit!’ ” she joked. But the sneaky fire hidden in the smooth green texture was quite addictive.
Our yucca frita and choros a chalaca (steamed mussels) arrived shortly after. The yucca was cut into thick fries and served with a cheese sauce. The outside of the fries was crisp and chewy, and the inside lightly sweet and hearty. There were also fascinating layers on the interior — like strata in a crystal. The combination of the thick, mild cheese sauce and the starchy yucca was like eating a dressed-up Peruvian version of nachos.
The six open-faced mussels were covered in diced onion, tomato and cilantro; and with our first bites, we discovered a surprise ingredient — large toasted corn kernels. Each mussel had the astringency of fresh lemon and the salinity and smoothness of the mussels. The crunch and light spiciness of the chopped components combined with the toasted crunch and almost-fried flavor satisfaction of the popped Andean corn kernels was phenomenal.
Our entrees had uniquely different presentations. The lomo saltado featured filet strips, onions and tomatoes on a bed of French fries. It also had a mound of white rice with strips of yellow (fiery) chili on top and a smattering of sauce underneath. Its flavors were simple, very steak-and-potatoes. Its origin combines Chinese stir-fry techniques with Peruvian spices, and the sauce featured soy sauce. The steak was a little chewy, but overall, we quite enjoyed the dish.
Our second entrée, called aji de gallina, was a rustic yellow stew topped with a quarter of a hard-boiled egg. It comprised shredded chicken in a creamy sauce served on halved potatoes, and was also accompanied by steamed rice. First bite, I noticed smokiness. “What is that? Chipotle?” No, too mild. We pondered and finally asked our soap opera director/waiter. He disappeared into the kitchen and out stepped chef/owner Dante Balarezo.
Some chefs like to hide their secrets but Balarezo, who had recently been teaching classes at the Culinary Institute, enthusiastically schooled us in the details. Turns out the secret lies in the rotisserie chicken.
The smoky chicken blended perfectly with the seasoned cream sauce. It was both provocative and comforting. The dish was served on thick planks of boiled potatoes with just the right density.
For dessert, we forewent the helada de lúcuma, an ice cream made from a delicate aromatic Andean fruit, to try the suspiro a la limeña, which translates into a girl from Lima (Peru) sighs, a lightly salty and sweet caramel cream topped with a fluffy sugary meringue.
What with our good-natured soap opera director/waiter, the enthusiastic Balarezo and the comforting and exotic dishes, we felt both entertained embraced. As we left, we poked our heads through the cut-out wall into the kitchen to witness Balarezo (aptly named Dante) fully engulf three skillets in flames.