¡que paja!

As I was pondering what to call today’s post on the wonders of Peruvian food, I came across the saying “¡que paja!” or “what a straw!” Although the direct translation doesn’t make much sense on it’s own, the intended meaning behind it – an expression of excitement in finding something that you immediately approve of – perfectly describes how I feel about El Mono, a little Peruvian restaurant in the East Bay.

Located next to an empty car lot, a couple of blocks down from the main strip of El Cerrito, a small town just north of Berkeley, the restaurant is seemingly in the middle of nowhere. But, what it lacks in space, it definitely make up for in flavor.

I remember the first time I had Peruvian – it was at a reunion with some of the girls, and coach, I used to play basketball with. I ordered a staple in Peruvian cuisine – Lomo Saltado, which is a stir fry of marinated beef, tomatoes, onions, and french fries with a side of rice. Hearing fries were involved made it a winner in my book, even without taking a single bite! But, I’m so glad I tried it, because it has since become my go-to at any Peruvian restaurant.

The only problem with finding something you love, is the dilemma of ordering something new and wishing you had just stuck with your usual. However, I’ve learned the trick to overcoming this is to order a bunch of dishes and share them with friends.

I’ve been to El Mono a handful of times now, and have gotten to try a good assortment of what they have to offer, which I’ll share with you today.

*A side-note for my gluten-free and health conscious friends – El Mono boasts about being MSG-free, as well as GF-friendly! Good food that you can feel good about eating makes me like this place even more!

And now, onto the food! Every table starts off with a bowl of toasted corn, or cancha, on the house. These puffed up kernels of corn are like big cornnuts, and are sprinkled with coarse salt. Another little tidbit I learned about cancha is that Peruvians often use the expression “como cancha” (just like toasted corn) to indicate there’s an excessive amount of something, because when a bunch of these kernels are poured in a bowl, there look like tons of them.

As for appetizers, my college friend and I started with the Causa de Atun, because she was intrigued by the aji amarillo, or Peruvian yellow chili, that was listed in the description. We were both excited when this layered creation was brought to our table – it almost looked like a dessert! Unfortunately, I forgot to take pictures, but luckily, there are pictures on their website. Check it (and the restaurant) out when you get a chance. It consisted of a thick layer of tuna salad between two thinner layers of a mashed potato puree, with the chili sauce drizzled over and around the dish. I was expecting Peruvian flavors mixed into each layer, but it tasted as home-grown American as you could get.

Ceviche Mixto – typical Latin dish that uses citrus to “cook” raw seafood, especially fish. This one is served with sweet potatoes, corn, and toasted corn. It was a safe choice with mild flavors, but a crowd pleaser all the same.

However, the must-have of the bunch is the Choritos a la Chalaca. These steamed mussels are served cold, on the half shell like oysters, and are topped with a citrus-y salsa. Not only are they refreshing, but they have a bit of spice as well! I would definitely get these little bites of zest again!

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As for main courses, first up is the beloved Lomo Saltado. Fun fact: did you know they use soy sauce to make this? I find it so interesting when I learn how some ingredients transcend cultures and cuisines. In a weird way, it shows us that we’re all related, ya?

Compared to other lomo saltados I’ve had over the years, this dish seemed a little ovecooked and a bit too salty. Good thing the rice helps to balance out the saltiness!

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Next up, is this wonder above, the Arroz Tapado. This mix of ground beef and rice is best served with Peruvian green sauce, or aji verde, which is a creamy concoction of garlic, cilantro, jalapeno, mayo (and more) that packs a bit of heat as well. The beef in the main dish, on the other hand, is stewed with raisins, olives, onions, and tomatoes, giving a hearty, comforting feel to the dish. It’s also topped with a quarter of a hard boiled egg, a couple of olives, and sprinkled with roughly chopped cilantro.

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You can’t forget the Arroz con Mariscos either, which is basically a seafood paella.

Again, don’t forget to liberally apply the green sauce, which is like magic deliciousness in a bottle and makes everything better. If you think the paella is rich enough on it’s own, add it anyway, because it just gets better!

On another occasion, I had the special of the day – a whole fried fish with mixed seafood (shrimp, squid, mussels, and clams) and rice. The yellow sauce was buttery and rich, but salty as well. Again, the side of rice balances it out.

Last up, we have to talk about the drinks! El Mono serves three homemade options – passion fruit (Maracuya), a purple corn one (Chicha Morada), or the best of both worlds, the Miti Miti. The passion fruit is like a refreshing agua fresca, and has just the right amount of sweetness to it. The chicha morada is a bit more neutral in taste, with the corn influencing the color of the drink more so than the flavor. In a way, it reminded me of hibiscus. On the other hand, I love the look of the miti miti, where the juices are layered on top of one other, creating the image of a sunrise in a glass.

Whether you’re grabbing a drink with a friend, going out to date night, or having a three (or four, or five) course dinner with other hippos like me, El Mono is a great place to eat (and try new dishes). I can’t wait to go again!

Until next time, enjoy!

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