Live in California long enough and you think you know your peppers.
But step into Brasa — the self-described "Peruvian joint" now occupying that tiny slip of a space formerly occupied by eVe and operated by the same husband-and-wife chef-owners, Christopher and Veronica Laramie — and you'll meet a whole new pepper pantheon.
Earthy yellow aji amarillo. Assertive red rocoto. Fruity orange aji panca. As served in, on, and with Brasa's rotisserie chicken, hot sandwiches, and other Peruvian street-food standbys, they're fundamentals of a cuisine that might just be the next big thing.
Peruvian food has spent centuries soaking up the flavors of Spain, France, Asia, Africa, and indigenous peoples. Promoted heavily by Peruvian celebrity chef/author/TV host/restaurateur Gastón Acurio, Cocina Novoandina is a new movement merging modern techniques with ancient Andean ingredients. Le Cordon Bleu's Lima campus is its biggest. Peruvian street food is messy, meaty, smoky, saucy, satisfying, and faintly familiar, like Grandma's cooking reconfigured by a drunken sailor or that crazy kid you knew in middle school: The French fries are INSIDE the steak sandwich. Nearly black, jaw-poppingly chewy as only offal can be, and dipped into minty green guacamole-lookalike huacatay sauce fueled by a member of the marigold family known as Stinking Roger — can Niman Ranch beef hearts win your heart? Brasa is a fun, friendly, affordable place to find out.
When eVe closed in December, it was a victim of its own success.
"On weekend nights, we were turning away thirty or forty people," said Peruvian-born and -bred Veronica Laramie. "In order to keep doing what we wanted to do with the food and the concept, we needed a bigger kitchen, a bigger space, a bigger crew. Since we still have the lease on this space, we decided to keep using it and eventually move on to do something else like eVe in a place that's big enough."
Given a Jacuzzi-sized open kitchen, they started cooking street food. Hasta luego, molecularly gastronomically small portions at Champagne prices. Hola, hearty under-$10 entrées that take two hands to hold.
Melt-in-the-mouth tender and juicy if a bit salty, made with San Joaquin Valley-based Mary's organic free-range birds, Brasa's signature rotisserie chicken can be ordered on the bone (whole, halved, or quartered), in sandwiches incorporating artisanal rolls from San Francisco's Panorama Bakery, or over white rice.
"Peruvians eat lots of rice — and soy sauce — because Asians have been in Peru for 250 years," Laramie said. "Lima has a huge Chinatown. And every grocery store in Lima has a dim sum kiosk. First, you get your cart. Then you go straight to the kiosk, then you do your shopping while eating dim sum."
Other sandwich/rice-bowl options include Niman Ranch pork loin, extra-firm tofu slabs, Belizean Laughing Bird tiger shrimp — considered more sustainable than other shrimp — and elegantly smooth soy-sauce-spiked Niman Ranch hanger steak: think charred velvet. Slim fries are stuffed inside the sandwich along with the steak, red onion, tomato, lettuce, and parsley to make every mouthful a hilarious, luscious class struggle.
"Lima's clubs close at five or six in the morning," Laramie said. "Heading home, you stop at these teeny-tiny sandwich places that stay open all night." Peruvian sandwiches, which Peruvians call sanguches, are served in round pan campesino rolls with soft centers and crisp golden crusts. Their pillowy insides soak up sauce and juice. Brasa's sanguche fillings are all standards, Laramie said — "along with a tofu one for everybody in Berkeley."
Tofu aside, vegetarians are pretty much out of luck here. Brasa is barely a month out of the gate, thus newer than most restaurants reviewed in these pages; maybe even one more meatless options will later emerge. Then again, this is a rotisserie place.
The Laramies shop at Berkeley's Mi Tierra Foods for Peruvian limes — which are neither Key limes nor standard North American supermarket limes — and for those chiles that shape the Peruvian flavor palette.
"We put aji amarillo on everything and use it as the base for everything," Laramie said.
Shiny scarlet rocotos resemble red bell peppers — thus in Arequipa are traditionally stuffed with beef, raisins, and hard-boiled egg. But don't let that fool you into thinking they're mild.
"To me, rocoto has a very floral flavor," Laramie said. "Yes, it gives you a little kick, but you're not sweating."
Sauces can be ordered separately, as can sides such as sweet-potato fries and a creamily dressed, classic Peruvian beet-carrot-avocado salad. Drinks include cinnamony-clovey chicha morada, made with Andean purple corn.
"When people in the States think about Latin American food, they always think of Mexican," Laramie said. "But Mexican food has nothing to do with Peruvian. Mexico is halfway between Central America and North America. In Mexico, they eat tortillas. In Peru, we don't even know what tortillas are. In Peru, nobody eats tacos. Taco Bell opened in Peru and had to close because nobody went there."
By contrast, "Peru has a huge deli-meat culture. We love ham, head cheese, and sausages. And we have bakeries. All the little housemaids line up outside the bakeries first thing in the morning to buy wonderful French rolls, and that's what we're all used to eating for breakfast with ham, cheese, and butter."
European savoir-faire suffuses Brasa's alfajores, buttery dulce de leche-stuffed sandwich cookies. Another dessert option at Brasa is soft-serve Straus organic ice cream flavored with powdered lúcuma, a maple-flavored, starchy yellow fruit savored 2,000 years ago by indigenous Andeans.
"Peru has no need to envy other countries," Laramie said. "It has so many microclimates, beautiful coffee and cacao beans, seafood, and fruits and vegetables. There's so much to Peruvian food, and people here don't know about it — yet. A Peruvian's big dream would be that the next time you go to a place that sells burgers or hot dogs, you could ask not for ketchup or mustard but for aji, rocoto, or huacatay — and you'd get it."