El Caserio: Eat at the sign of the dwarf
Silver Lake seems to specialize in restaurants with no signage, like Pho Cafe and Cliff's Edge, or restaurants that can be challenging to find the first time. The new upscale version of longtime Ecuadorian/Italian restaurant El Caserio is also tricky to find, even if you know that it's located in the former insurance company office next to the Hollywood freeway's Silver Lake Blvd. on-ramp. Just turn right on London -- when you see the lawn gnome holding an "Open" sign, open the ornately-carved heavy wooden door, and you're there. The office building has been transformed into a pleasant space with a large glassed-in patio.
One of just a handful of Ecuadorian restaurants in all of Los Angeles, El Caserio's specialties are similar to some Peruvian dishes, but with a twist that often involves peanut sauce. The Ecuadorian dishes don't do a fusion thing with the Italian food -- there's a separate pasta section of the menu, and desserts like cannoli and tiramisu. Despite the blown glass chandeliers and full cocktail menu, Ecuadorian cooking is still homey and rustic no matter how you tart it up.
We started with super-crispy fresh empanadas, stuffed with chicken, beef and cheese, perfect with some spicy aji sauce. Other Ecuadorian starters include humitas (corn and cheese tamales) shrimp ceviche, and a soup called locro de papas, with potatoes, feta cheese and avocado. As in Peruvian cuisine, potatoes are ubiquitous -- if you haven't had a saltado before, it's an Asian-influenced stir fry of shrimp or beef with a soy-based sauce, sauteed with onions, tomatoes and French fries. Strangely enough, it works, although with a scoop of buttery rice on the side, it might approach starch overload. Saltados are also available with tallarines, akin to Italian tagliatelle noodles, instead of fries.
For a real Ecuadorian experience, try the Seco de chivo. The boneless goat isn't at all gamey, more like a tender pork dish, and is served in a beer-laced red sauce that's a bit too salty, but about right after it's mixed with the rice on the side. Llapingachos con fritada are one of the more unusual Ecuadorian dishes: potato patties are served with pork ribs, garlic and onions, topped with an egg over easy, topped with peanut sauce. There's a full cocktail menu mojitos, caipirinhas and the like; fruit juices and South American sodas.
El Caserio is a fun change of pace, but it comes at a price comparable to mid-range Italian restaurants in the area. Pastas are $12-16 and main courses $14-28, so don't expect a funky "ethnic" experience -- this is Ecuador/Italy deluxe.
El Caserio, 401 Silver Lake Blvd., 213-273-8945