I was 20 when I first discovered Peruvian cuisine. It was at a restaurant called El Pollo Inka in Lawndale, and a friend who’d snagged a job at Northrop Grumman in nearby El Segundo had told me about it. Everyone in her office ate there, she said. When I finally tried it myself, I was blown away. How is it possible that Chinese-style stir-fries and fried rice existed on the same menu as ceviche and arroz con pollo? And then there was this thing called aji verde, a habit-forming green hot sauce in squirt bottles that I used to drown the free bread.
After that seminal experience, I would go on to seek out every Peruvian restaurant in my immediate vicinity. Among the constants I noticed at these casual, family-owned establishments were pan-flute music, murals of Macchu Picchu and, most of all, affordable prices for generous portions. I could always count on a Peruvian restaurant if I wanted to eat well for not much money.
It’s for this reason that I’m averse to paying over a certain dollar amount for saltado. So if I was initially skeptical when I heard that a new upscale Peruvian restaurant opened in Costa Mesa’s Theater and Arts District, it’s because the first thing I noticed was that the saltado went for nearly twice the going rate at El Pollo Inka. I wasn’t surprised, really, as Costa is located in a high-rent area. It sits behind glass in a building directly across from Mastro’s Steakhouse and around the corner from Water Grill. As such, the tables are arranged immaculately, complete with wine glasses. Twenty-year-old me could never afford to eat here.
It was only after I learned that the people behind the venture were Kay Ayazi and Jose Gutierrez that my skepticism began to melt away. Ayazi and Gutierrez previously owned Eqeko in Santa Ana, which I liked and reviewed. So if I was going to pay $20 for lomo saltado, I trusted these two were at least going to do it well.
As it turns out, $20 is a commensurate price for Costa’s lomo saltado. The beef is a bona-fide filet mignon. Cut into stubby morsels, each tender piece is wok-seared just enough to brown. And the first-class treatment of the dish didn’t stop there: The French fries are made from scratch—formed into spears as thick as my thumb and stacked as a base to the stir-fry as well as on top, as though they were Jenga blocks.
And unlike other saltados, this one sat in a brothy sauce in which the flavors of soy, cumin, vinegar and garlic were concentrated. I liked it, especially when I dribbled the run-off onto rice, which Costa’s chef serves in a separate bowl.
The rest of the menu is familiar. There’s the chifa staple of arroz chaufa de pollo for $14, but also a traditional aji de gallina featuring ropy shreds of chicken breast mired in a thick, yellow-tinted gravy made of cheese, walnuts and aji amarillo. There’s also the pescado a lo macho, a seafood stew with mussels, calamari rings, shrimp and an entire branzino fillet. If I saw it at Marché Moderne, I’d mistake it for bouillabaisse and not realize the difference until the spiciness hit.
As at Eqeko, there are plenty of ceviches and tiraditos to consider. The ceviche de tuna is breathtaking, with slices of yellowtail slowly cooked in an acidic leche de tigre; it’s served in the same way I remembered it at the old restaurants. The dish comes with a chunk of sweet potato, cancha (the Peruvian version of CornNuts) and choclo (gigantic kernels of Peruvian corn).
It was midmeal, however, when I began to notice that despite the location and higher prices, Costa still had the earmarks and tendencies of a more casual place. The table settings might be fancy, but the napkins are paper. And while one server was cordial and chummy, another was aloof and slightly patronizing when I asked if they had any aji verde I could use as a condiment. She corrected me on what it’s really called before she came out with a tiny saucer of it.
Because the food was great, I was prepared to write all this off and declare Costa as proof that high-end Peruvian restaurants can work. But then I saw the eatery had tacked on an additional 3 percent surcharge for using a credit card. Apparently, I completely missed the fine print on the menu that warned it would—something my 40-year-old eyes had to squint really hard to reread.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Taste of Peru’s Renzo Macchiavello is involved in Costa. The Weekly has since learned from Costa’s owners that Macchiavello is not part of the restaurant. They state, “when we first started the build out he was entertaining the idea, but it didn’t materialize.” The Weekly regrets the error.
Costa, 650 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa, (714) 852-3299. Open Mon.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5-9 p.m.; Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5-10 p.m.; Sat., 5-10 p.m. Appetizers, $11-$19; entrées, $14-$20. Beer and wine.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.