Succulent meats, fresh, spicy ceviche, and, most likely, a number of dishes that would be unfamiliar to the average American palate: the Peruvian restaurant El Mono makes the artisan accessible.
However tempting it may be, try to avoid the familiar dishes at El Mono. Save the scallion-packed chicken fried rice, sweet potato fries, and dirty tuna sandwich for another restaurant. Trust that El Mono does it well, but that’s not what this Peruvian place is about.
Instead, try the Arroz Tapado. The pyramid-shaped dish of chunky beef, olive, and raisin stew sandwiched on the top and bottom by layers of rice and garnished with a hard-boiled egg and an olive is rich with complex flavors. The savory flavors of the beef are enhanced by the spices cooked into the meat, but are balanced out by the slight tartness of the olives and lightened by hints of the sweet raisin. For an extra kick, try throwing on some of the cilantro, which is sprinkled around the plate.
The Arroz Tapado is delicious —and enormous. To get a full taste for what’s offered at El Mono, bring your appetite and a friend or two (or three) to share as many dishes as possible.
The Papa la Huancaina, a dish of boiled yellow potatoes in a spicy, creamy sauce that looks a little like hollandaise sauce, is an easy and tasty appetizer to share. The dish comes out in an enormous slab of potato, sauce, and garnish that looks like a very messy sushi roll. Like most things at El Mono, it’s spicy, but that’s what a meal at the Peruvian place is all about: bold flavors, unique flavor combinations, and embracing a flavor palate that will probably leave you sweating at by the end.
Once you’ve had your fill of spicy, savory dishes, take a chance on El Mono’s desert menu. An order of house-made Alfajore, a Peruvian caramel cookie comes out dusted in powdered sugar, is a good place to start. You can order just one, or one dozen. Their lucuma ice cream, which carries the unique maple and sweet potato flavors of the South American fruit, is at once deliciously sweet and a tad savory, making it a must-try for the curious diner.
The food at El Mono is surprising and flavorful, but at a certain point the consistent intensity of the flavors can become a little overwhelming. One’s flavor palate doesn’t get a break throughout the meal, between the spicy meats and intensely sweet deserts. The lack of a middle ground between highly flavorful and average can make the food at the Peruvian spot a little tiring.
That said, a meal at El Mono is for the adventurous. Each item on the menu holds its own surprises and results in a uniquely flavorful experience. For the patron who likes spice and intense flavor, it’s an experience not to be missed, but for those who prefer a milder sort of meal —you might want to stick to their chicken fried rice.
10264 San Pablo Ave, El Cerrito
Tel. (510) 778-8884
Tuesday - Thursday: Lunch: 11 am to 3 pm; Dinner: 5 pm to 8 pm
Friday - Saturday: Lunch: 11 am to 3 pm; Dinner: 5 pm to 9 pm
Sunday: 11 am to 4 pm
Photo: Directora Creativa