Following a walking map for a food-sampling event in downtown Santa Ana, my wife and I find ourselves in front of a red brick building adjacent to Tootsie’s ice cream shop. It looks more bar than restaurant, and the sign out front that reads “Eqeko” seems misspelled. The sidewalk staff offers us ceviche—by far our best taste of the night. Candlelight emanates from within, and I consider Eqeko (Ay-KAY-ko) as a candidate for a romantic night out.
Out alone one day, I find the charming entry beckons again, but this time I’m met not with a romantic glow, but a fishy odor. In spite of this, diners seem to be enjoying themselves. Two months later, encouraged by the disarming ambience and memories of that street-side mahi-mahi, I return with my wife for a meal.
We order ceviche, of course, spelled “cebiche” here, as it is in Peru. While we wait, we notice plenty to like about this year-old restaurant, opened by executive chef Agustin Romo and partners Jose Gutierrez and Orlando Spigno, the Peruvian in the equation. A winning salsa soundtrack, quirky framed wood planks hung like pictures, exposed brick, and patio seating on comfy vermillion sofas make the place cool enough for Santa Ana twentysomethings and cozy enough for Peruvian grandmas. This time there is no fishy smell.
The ceviche arrives, its marinade lively with lime, chile, garlic, and ginger. Wedges of sweet potato, large-kernel white Andean corn, and corn nuts provide a fine contrast, and cilantro and thinly sliced red onion offer sprightly finishing touches. But the dish’s main attraction, the fish, disappoints. It’s not mahi-mahi, but swai, a Southeast-Asian variety that’s irregularly “cooked,” even irregularly textured—some chunks firm, others oddly spongy. Sips from an Argentine chardonnay and a Peruvian lager—selected from a handful of options—go only so far to ease our disappointment.
Swai fares much better sliced thin in the Tiradito de Pescado, Peruvian sashimi presented on a stylish rectangular dish with minced red onions, scallions, and the Andean corn. A shallow pool of lime juice and aji amarillo, the orange chile that is a cornerstone of Peruvian cooking, gives it a welcome kick.
The Chicharrón de Pollo Sliders highlight truly delectable panca chile-marinated chicken—topped with a green sauce of huacatay (a mint-like Andean herb) and criolla salsa (onion, tomato, cilantro, and chile)—served with a side of sweet-potato fries.
For the dish known as Ocopa, tender potato slices are topped with a refined “Peruvian sauce” that blends amarillo chile, peanuts, shrimp, huacatay, and cheese. It reminds us that potatoes were first cultivated by the Incans and are central to Peruvian cuisine, and it’s lovely enough to prompt a second visit.
Despite a waitress’s warning that the Ocopa is the spiciest dish on the menu, it’s not spicy in the least. Chef Romo clearly uses chiles with restraint, for subtle flavor differences rather than heat. OK, the tiradito has a little zing. But those who like their Peruvian dishes to pack a Scoville punch should head to an Inka Grill. Or request a side of aji rocoto—the tiniest dollop of the chile condiment is a firecracker. That said, most of Romo’s salsas and sauces are
delicious; some of the dishes would be even better if they were served with more of each on the side.
All of the menu’s 15 offerings are small plates. We ultimately end up trying most, plus several desserts. Star of the show: Arroz con Mariscos a la Norteña, a paella that has a complex stock incorporating dark beer and loads of cilantro. Atop its green rice sit succulent shrimp, calamari, mussels, and … swai, cooked to perfection and wholly redeeming itself.
Also memorable: Tamalitos de Seco, the corn dough moist and stuffed with a piquant cilantro-beef stew; empanadas, the sensuously yielding pastry filled with cumin-laced ground beef; and green mussels on the half shell, with corn nuts, corn, and a tomato salsa.
Carapulcra, a comfort stew of pork, peanuts, and dehydrated potato, proves bland. Causa, a cold mashed-potato terrine layered with tuna salad, lacked pizazz on one visit. It improved on another, thanks to more aji amarillo. Desserts come up short: The caramel sauce on the Crema Volteada
—Peruvian creme caramel—tastes slightly burnt; and the bread pudding, though tasty, is simply too dense. But be sure to order the house-brewed Chicha Morada, a cold beverage made from purple corn and pineapple, pre-Incan and inky-hued, like a cross between nonalcoholic mulled wine and Kool-Aid.
Our servers are so likable that miscues hardly matter, though they do add up. We’re told the wines on the tiny, verbally proffered list are Argentine, but the tempranillo we order turns out to be a Rioja from Spain. Dishes are only sometimes replaced after courses, and when one dish arrives, we wait for utensils while it sits. We request a side of aji rocoto twice before it actually appears, and the Tacu-Tacu we inquire about—a bean-and-rice patty topped with a fried egg—suddenly arrives as if we’d ordered it. Our reservation for four is written as a table for 12, and we wonder what our experience might have been if that many had arrived.
Romo trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Hollywood and, briefly, in Lima, Peru, and worked at Peruvian spots in Long Beach and Gardena. His timing is good, as last year the National Restaurant Association identified Peruvian cuisine as a top trend. Sunday brunch is in the offing. Corkage is $10, a very good idea. And, as it turns out, Eqeko—the Incan god of prosperity—is spelled correctly.
BEST DISHES Arroz con Mariscos (green-rice paella), Choritos a la Chalaca (green mussels on the half shell), Tamalitos de Seco, empanadas
PRICE RANGE Small plates, $7 to $11
FYI Incan legend has it that during a siege, when people were starving, food would appear near a statue of Eqeko.
309 W. Third St.