Peruvian cuisine is having an extended moment in the greater Los Angeles dining scene. From Mikaza Downtown to Chifa in Eagle Rock and Bodegon 69 in Pasadena, various interpretations of Peruvian culinary traditions have sprouted recently.
Chef Jean Valcarcel and partner Angela Wagner continue the tradition with a twist of fusion. Their Little Llama Peruvian Tacos is a newcomer to Downtown, having just opened in October.
But Little Llama’s brick-and-mortar opening represents just the latest turn for Valcarcel and Wagner. They successfully incubated their novel taco concept during an extended five-year residency at Smorgasburg, the Sunday food festival that was revived on July 4.
Valcarcel was born and raised in Peru. He grew up cooking with his grandmother.
“I lived with her from the age of 3 to 8 in Lambayeque, which is a little rural town in northern Peru,” Valcarcel said.
“She was vegetarian, and we couldn’t find tofu anywhere. You had to go to the big city to buy it, so we would have to make it. We would make tofu from scratch. We would essentially plan our whole day — while school was out — around the meals we would cook for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was a really fun time.”
He moved to the United States as a teenager and studied music in Seattle before moving to Los Angeles in 2002. While working as a bartender, he was developing his interest in food, and he enrolled in the culinary program at LA Trade Technical College.
He met Wagner while they were working at chef Ricardo Zarate’s Peruvian restaurant Mo Chica at Mercado la Paloma, near the USC campus. They were working front of house, but Valcarcel had kitchen ambitions.
“I had already started at culinary school,” Valcarel said. “I spoke to the chef, Ricardo, to give me an opportunity in the kitchen. Most people go from the back of the kitchen to the front, not from the front to the back. He was a little surprised, but I was given a chance, and I worked under him for a little over a year in the kitchen.”
Wagner was an art school graduate with a creative background and interests. When Valcarcel launched an underground supper club — Re Creo — he drafted Wagner to help.
“(Re Creo) was still small when I started,” Wagner said. “Jean was doing it out of his loft, 12-person capacity. It started getting bigger. I took on more of the marketing and branding and hosting. We were able to create a community around it. That’s what I really enjoyed about it. Instead of creating art, I started focusing more on creating experience. It became a culinary performance art experiment, which was really fun.”
Valcarcel added, “It was really cool. There were no rules. I kind of miss it to be honest. I would like to bring it back in some new iteration.”
Wagner said the supper club led to the taco concept.
“Whenever Jean wove Peruvian ingredients into the dishes and menu, people were super excited,” Wagner added. “The pair was interested in developing a more accessibly affordable concept for the food. Jean started to think of a way to introduce the Peruvian flavors and the cooking to everyone.”
The dishes had fine dining touches but were sold at a reasonable price point, all the while accessible to anyone.
“I love tacos. Peruvian food is amazing,” Valcarcel said.
“I wanted to share that. I wanted to put those two things together. That was how Little Llama Tacos was born. After passing their Smorgasburg audition and confirming their guests’ enthusiasm for the fusion tacos, a successful five-year run ensued at the Sunday event. The notion of opening a restaurant and expanding into other markets was always on the agenda.
“We started looking for places. It happened that all the pieces came together right before the pandemic hit,” Valcarcel said.
The pair signed a lease on the Main Street location in November 2019. Construction began with a projected April opening, when the lockdown arrived in March.
“Angela and I had never opened a restaurant that was ours,” he said. “On top of everything else, it was a terrifying experience because we didn’t really know what we didn’t know at all.”
Wagner added, “Everything kept getting more complicated. Every time we felt we had something figured out, something changed.”
Valcarcel said they needed to make it happen — no matter what.
“There was no choice but to see it through and do it well,” he said.
The proof is in his tacos. They are the inevitable menu destination here, although burritos and tostadas heaped with ceviche are also worthy options. Ceviche is the national dish of Peru. It’s a style distinct from Mexican or Central American renditions, which tend to have a shorter marination time. It also evokes the generational Japanese Nikkei culture of Peru.
Although Valcarcel’s fusion of Mexican influences is central to Little Llama’s concept, traditional Peruvian ingredients and flavor profiles are inherent in each dish.
The initial list of tostadas on the menu demonstrates this aptly. Seared ahi tuna Nikkei ($13) is served with aji amarillo crema, avocado and scallion salsa and topped with pickled red onion and cilantro.
There’s also a shrimp ceviche tostada ($11.50) with chunks of mango and cumin guacamole.
The tortillas are fresh pressed on-site from organic corn in a 6-inch diameter format. The lomo saltado taco ($6) is an ode to the Peruvian beef dish. A fresh tortilla is stuffed with certified Angus beef marinated in ginger and garlic before grilling. Smashed Yukon Gold potatoes stand in for French fries, and it’s all dressed with a citrusy tomato escabeche and huacatay aioli. The pollo al a braza taco ($5) is a tribute to the classic Peruvian roast chicken dish. The chicken is steeped in a marinade of aji panca pepper and beer before roasting. Smashed potatoes, pickled red onion and green huancaina sauce provide the traditional finish.
The pomegranate-glazed pork belly taco ($5) is a bit more of an original departure. The roasted and glazed pork is matched with fresh corn polenta, cotija cheese and a scattering of pomegranate seeds.
For those guests eschewing animal protein, there are options. The papa a la huancaina ($4.50) is unlike any other potato taco in town.
Here, the smashed potatoes are treated with an amarillo and feta cheese sauce, a slice of boiled egg and black olive powder and topped with a sprinkle of cotija cheese. The shiitake saltado ($6) swaps in marinated mushrooms for the beef in an otherwise classic treatment.
The beef saltado, chicken a la braza and shiitake preps are also available in generous burrito portions ($12 to $14). The burritos use garlic and herb flour tortillas and include the additional stuffing of fried cilantro rice.
Notable side dishes here include blackened broccoli ($5.50) with pepita and cilantro pesto and crunchy quinoa; elote ($6), charred sweet corn dressed with aji amarillo crema, chopped jalapenos and cotija cheese; and fresh corn polenta ($5) with cotija cheese and pomegranate seeds.
On the beverage menu, there are three traditional Peruvian refrescos ($4), including the deep purple, corn-infused chicha morada as well as Inca cola ($3). There are a dozen craft beers, as well as a house michelada referred to as a “spicy umami-bomb” ($11) of peppers, tomatoes, lime and herbs infused with Peruvian Cusquena lager. There are three canned wines from West + Wilder vineyards ($9.50) and two white and two red wines available by the glass or bottle. There’s also a Colibri rosé ($8) on tap, by the glass.
With any of these options enjoyed on one of the restaurant’s two outdoor shaded patios, a satisfying and relaxed repast is all but guaranteed.
“What we’re aiming for is to provide old-world normalcy,” Wagner said.
“It’s a pleasant, happy environment. We can get back to sharing meals with friends and hopefully amazing experiences with food you’ve never tried before.”
Valcarcel is adamant about the experience at Little Llama Peruvian Tacos.
“I’m really proud of the food but also the design of the space. We did that ourselves. We have two beautiful patios. It’s a really welcoming and bright and fun space to match the food, which is inventive and flavorful. What I would say to the Downtown community is, ‘Come have some tacos.’”
Mexico meets Peru at Little
Llama on Main Street, 12