A Side of Salt: Mario Alberto. A Tale of Soul Searching and Soul Food.
For this fourth entry of A Side of Salt, I’d like to introduce Mario Alberto, currently the head chef at the wildly popular, Chimú in Downtown LA, a Peruvian concept with a touch of soul. The past editions of A Side of Salt have dealt with strife, determination and innate talent. And after I had the opportunity to hear Alberto’s story, I’ve learned that the old adage of finding things when you’re not looking yet again proves to be true. If you’ve eaten at the Lazy Ox Canteen, you may have seen him with much longer hair, manning the 800 degree brick oven. As Chef Josef Centeno’s former right hand man, he approaches everything with 100% heart and soul and was very much a pillar for the Laxy Ox kitchen. You may find yourself eating here sooner than later after you read what Chimu is all about. This is the story of Mario Alberto and how soul-searching has led him to cook Peruvian “soul food”.
When Laxy Ox Canteen first opened in December 2009, Jeni and I ran for the tables, for our favorite Los Angeles chef just opened up his first restaurant. We had followed him from his days at Lot 1 Cafe in Echo Park and sadly pondered the day he would re-surface. So this was good news – no this was excellent news. We walked in and ate some of the best tasting food we had in a while. After we chatted with Centeno for a bit, he was flattered that he had followers and we were sent one last dish from the kitchen – the famed rice pudding with caramel sauce. I don’t like desserts, but I loved what I was eating. We thanked Centeno for the dessert but he quickly redirected the compliments to a young man with a dark mustache and long hair. He saw us and waved us down. “I didn’t make it, he did. It’s great stuff. That’s Mario, “ said Centeno. “He cooked with me back at Lot 1.” “We like him already,” we said. And that would be the first of many times we would have Centeno and Alberto’s food.
With his technique and approach to cooking, one would think Alberto attended culinary school. He in fact, did not. Alberto is yet another example of the lengths determination and curiosity can take you. Alberto grew up in Boyle Heights and Huntington Park, and for those that appreciate Mexican food, both cities are meccas for solid food and I believe, is a big contributor to Alberto’s love for food. His career in the culinary industry happened out of necessity, not by chance. As a college student, he attended Long Beach Community College and later transferred to UCLA to pursue film and photography. Like most college students, he needed income. Growing up, he had always been fascinated by Japanese culture – its art, food, city life and the people. He took a job as a line cook at a Japanese restaurant. He was impressed with Japanese technique and how careful and respectful they were of ingredients. As his passion for film and photography lessened, his knowledge and experience in Japanese cuisine strengthened. He soon found himself working at Zu Robata in Santa Monica and then he met Josef Centeno…
Centeno was just re-surfacing after his stint at Opus on Wilshire, but not before leaving his imprint on diners all over Los Angeles. He surprised everyone with a gig at a negligible corner cafe in Echo Park and quickly garnered attention. And Alberto, was his sous chef. Jeni and I went to have a meal there one night and did not expect anything at all because we just wanted something fast and close by. All it took was a simple fried eggplant salad and some beautifully braised beef tongue and our eyes lit up. This food had a certain appeal to it that was best described as soul food and we were instantly fans. Alberto was raised under a single mother and when asked what Centeno meant in his life, he stated that he was a mentor and a brother. This synergy and symbiotic relationship between Centeno and Alberto transferred over to Laxy Ox Canteen a few months later. If you are a fan of Laxy Ox Canteen, you then understand and appreciate true soul food and it is all due to Centeno and Alberto’s relationship. And it is why the restaurant is so successful – there’s feeling to the food.
But during this time, Alberto was going through a very difficult time of his life. On top of the 18 hours a day he put into Laxy Ox Canteen for 2 months straight, he was balancing personal and family issues and he was near exhaustion. Centeno, being a brother and mentor, saw this and encouraged him to go on a hiatus. Alberto had heard about a vine native to the Peruvian, Colombian and Brazilian Amazon called ayahuasca which was ingested in liquid form for divinitory and healing purposes. It is used to address emotional, physical or psychological problems that Western medicine has failed to alleviate. Ingesting this liquid is not by any means recreational as it is a rite of passage. This is a 4-6 hour ordeal that involves self-realization through purging (on both ends), hallucination and Shamanistic ceremonies. While it does sound attractive to recreational drug users on paper, the effects have been positive for those participating in this exhaustive soul-searching. I read a quote that said, “You get these near death experiences,” he says. “And once you see life from the perspective of death, you become a bit more philosophical and have a better sense of what’s important and what’s not.” But making the trek down to the Amazon was more than half the battle. In June 2010, he decided to go down to Peru with Rolando Maldonado, who is a server at Lazy Ox Canteen and currently the manager of Chimu, in search of this ayahuasca vine that promised spiritual enlightenment.
In Peru, they soon found that getting to the Amazon to partake in this ayahuasca ritual was more difficult than they thought and decided to call it all off. But truth be told, the soul searching Alberto was looking for was happening right around him in the city of Lima – through the Peruvian culture, the food, produce and amazing markets through out the city. It was here in Lima that he was inspired by Peruvian cooking and its access to ingredients harvested by indigenous villages and what was offered by the Amazon river and jungles. He was overwhelmed by the 5,000 varietals of potatoes, hundreds of spices, proteins such as cuy (guinea pig) and amazingly fresh seafood. And everyday, he and Rolando would just eat, eat and eat. The more they ate, the more they learned – and the more they found themselves. He had also extended his trip to El Salvador and Guatemala and stated that having experience a tumultuous city like El Salvador, it taught him to appreciate what he had in Los Angeles – which was peace. This was indeed spiritual enlightment for both Alberto and Maldonado.
When Alberto came back to Los Angeles, he emerged as a new man. While most of his personal issues may not have been addressed through the soul searching, he did realize his passion and ideal approach to cooking – Peruvian with a kick of soul. He may not have met the shaman in the Peruvian Amazon but ironically, his shaman appeared in Los Angeles in the form of a 39-year old, long-haired white guy often wielding a Dodgers hat. This shaman goes by the name of Jason Michaud, who is the chef and owner of Local in Silver Lake, who prides himself on cooking only with local ingredients. When we met Rolando Maldonado for the first time, it wasn’t at Lazy Ox Canteen, it was at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market. At that time, he was working for Sage Mountain Farms and was selling produce to restaurants all over Los Angeles, especially to Jason Michaud. They developed a good relationship and Rolando introduced him to Mario. One day after his trip back from Peru, Michaud was talking about opening up a new restaurant and as a joke, Alberto threw out his “Peruvian with soul” concept. Two weeks later, it turned out not to be a joke, as Michaud turned Alberto’s dream into reality after scouting the current Chimú location next to the Grand Central Market. And this is what soul-searching had materialized into…
Left to Right: Alberto’s sous chef Gabriel Galvez who has worked at Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50 and Michael Voltaggio’s The Dining Room (Langham Hotel, Pasadena). Rolando Maldonado, the always jolly manager at Chimú and member at Lazy Ox Canteen.
Aji de Gallina: a Creole curry with walnuts and hard-boiled egg.
Halibut ceviche with seaweed, choclo and leche de tigre.
Lomo Saltado: double-fried fries to ward off sogginess.
Lomo Saltado made with tender cuts of beef.
Estofado de Lengua: Braised beef tongue with baby tomatoes, salsa madre & beluga lentils.
Chancho Pork Belly with barley, huacatay and tomato confit.
Huacatay and Huancaina, critical Peruvian sauces.
The food at Chimú is simply on another level. For a lunch-time, take-out spot in the wasteland of Downtown Los Angeles eateries, customers may be asking Alberto to open up for dinner very soon. When asked about his approach to Chimú, he stated that it’s, “Peruvian food the way I like to eat it.” Alberto realizes that most Angelenos think Peruvian food is purely lomo saltado, chaufa (Peruvian-style Chinese fried rice; like “chao faan”) and ceviche. But what he ate in Lima, would change everyone’s perspective on Peruvian cuisine. One thing Centeno had imbued in his mind was that to be a good cook, you have to understand and respect a dish’s provenance. Once you understand that, then you can deviate from it. And that is his exact approach to Chimú’s “Peruvian with soul” concept. Your lomo saltado will have Belgian-style double fried Yukon Gold potatoes to better hold the sauce and withstand sogginess. Your ceviche will not be as acidic as most, but there will be a certain roundness to it thrugh the use of Japanese plum-infused honey (umeboshi).Your aji de gallina will have a touch of Creole-style curry to it.
I asked how Alberto felt now with everything going, and I appreciated his modesty.
Me: “Are you happy?”
Alberto: “I’m very happy.”
Me: “Are you tired?”
Alberto: “Ha. I’m always tired.”
Me: “You know you’re getting a lot of attention right?”
Alberto: “I hope. To tell you the truth, I’m pretty self-conscious about my food.”
Me: “Why are you self-conscious when most of the customers in the patio are yours? With another ten people in line right now?”
Look for the changing menu at Chimu. You won’t have a better meal out of a cardboard box. Thanks for reading.
Chimú Peruvian Soulfood
324 S. Hill Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013