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Flama Llama is a non-Asian eatery on Convoy... or is it?

The Peruvian restaurant offers a tasty lesson on cultural affinity

A Cuban-style mojo shredded pork served with rice and grilled plantains at Flama Llama
A Cuban-style mojo shredded pork served with rice and grilled plantains at Flama Llama

The more Kearny Mesa's Convoy District has leaned into its pan-Asian businessplace identity, the more fascinated I've become with those not-pan-Asian restaurants trying to succeed there. Thanks to the excellence of mariscos shop El Viejon Seafood, I know it can be done, but I still think it takes cojones to be the outlier, competing in a world dominated by noodles, dumplings, and hot pots.

Place

Flama Llama

4433 Convoy St., San Diego


That's why, for over a year now, the words Flama Llama, written in big letters along Convoy Street, have been capturing my attention whenever I drive by. 


A big Peruvian restaurant sign on Convoy Street


It's a Peruvian restaurant, also marked by a cartoon llama with a small flame, burning at the top of its head like a candle wick. Of course, I'm usually in the district looking for ramen or sushi or somesuch, so I mentally vow to return someday to try that lone Peruvian spot mixed in among Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese restaurants.


Well, someday finally arrives, and I walk into the spacious, table service eatery decorated with hanging plants, colorful knit tapestries, and crocheted chandeliers. Looking over the QR code menu, it starts where I would expect: with Lomo Saltado, Peru's national dish of stir-fried steak. Here it's hunks of marinated flank steak, with tomatoes and red onions, served with rice and over wedge fries. I'm halfway to ordering it before I read on.


A spacious dining room and back patio at Flama Llama
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There's a slow-braised mojo shredded pork plate ($15.50), and ropa vieja ($17), dishes you'd typically find in Caribbean restaurants, even served here with grilled plantains. And there are grilled sandwiches including a cubano, the mojo pork served on a melt with ham and pickles ($15). The same pork also gets loaded onto tacos, if you prefer. (3/$14.50) In other words, Flama Llama shows a little pan-Hispanic influence, to the extent there's a seafood paella ($17.50).


But there's something deeper going on here, and I don't realize it until I get to the Tallerin Saltado. This is the same steak stir-fry as before, except served with spaghetti noodles. I see tomatoes, I see the word spaghetti, and I start making assumptions about Italian influences. Except the dish turns out to be more closely related to chow mein. It's even got a soy saucy base.

Tallarin Saltado, Peru's answer to chow mein


Why is this so? Well, I do a little (overdue) digging to learn that, actually, Lomo Saltado grew out of Chinese-Peruvian kitchens. These were established following a 19th century influx of tens of thousands of Cantonese migrant laborers. Mainly men, workers wound up settling there and marrying into the population, and thus married Chinese influence into Peruvian culture.


Which is to say, the world is always more intertwined and interesting than we imagine it to be. And Flama Llama actually is a part of Convoy's pan-Asian dining culture, if only a distant cousin.


Chicken fried rice, Peruvian style

We see it again in what winds up being my favorite dish at Flama Llama: a peppery chicken fried rice ($15) that's not quite the same as you'll find on menus up and down the street, but mainly because it's served with the distinctly Peruvian aji chili pepper sauce. If you want something more Asian than that, Flama Llama has a couple of wanton dumpling dishes it would like you to try.

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A Cuban-style mojo shredded pork served with rice and grilled plantains at Flama Llama
A Cuban-style mojo shredded pork served with rice and grilled plantains at Flama Llama

The more Kearny Mesa's Convoy District has leaned into its pan-Asian businessplace identity, the more fascinated I've become with those not-pan-Asian restaurants trying to succeed there. Thanks to the excellence of mariscos shop El Viejon Seafood, I know it can be done, but I still think it takes cojones to be the outlier, competing in a world dominated by noodles, dumplings, and hot pots.

Place

Flama Llama

4433 Convoy St., San Diego


That's why, for over a year now, the words Flama Llama, written in big letters along Convoy Street, have been capturing my attention whenever I drive by. 


A big Peruvian restaurant sign on Convoy Street


It's a Peruvian restaurant, also marked by a cartoon llama with a small flame, burning at the top of its head like a candle wick. Of course, I'm usually in the district looking for ramen or sushi or somesuch, so I mentally vow to return someday to try that lone Peruvian spot mixed in among Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese restaurants.


Well, someday finally arrives, and I walk into the spacious, table service eatery decorated with hanging plants, colorful knit tapestries, and crocheted chandeliers. Looking over the QR code menu, it starts where I would expect: with Lomo Saltado, Peru's national dish of stir-fried steak. Here it's hunks of marinated flank steak, with tomatoes and red onions, served with rice and over wedge fries. I'm halfway to ordering it before I read on.


A spacious dining room and back patio at Flama Llama
Sponsored
Sponsored


There's a slow-braised mojo shredded pork plate ($15.50), and ropa vieja ($17), dishes you'd typically find in Caribbean restaurants, even served here with grilled plantains. And there are grilled sandwiches including a cubano, the mojo pork served on a melt with ham and pickles ($15). The same pork also gets loaded onto tacos, if you prefer. (3/$14.50) In other words, Flama Llama shows a little pan-Hispanic influence, to the extent there's a seafood paella ($17.50).


But there's something deeper going on here, and I don't realize it until I get to the Tallerin Saltado. This is the same steak stir-fry as before, except served with spaghetti noodles. I see tomatoes, I see the word spaghetti, and I start making assumptions about Italian influences. Except the dish turns out to be more closely related to chow mein. It's even got a soy saucy base.

Tallarin Saltado, Peru's answer to chow mein


Why is this so? Well, I do a little (overdue) digging to learn that, actually, Lomo Saltado grew out of Chinese-Peruvian kitchens. These were established following a 19th century influx of tens of thousands of Cantonese migrant laborers. Mainly men, workers wound up settling there and marrying into the population, and thus married Chinese influence into Peruvian culture.


Which is to say, the world is always more intertwined and interesting than we imagine it to be. And Flama Llama actually is a part of Convoy's pan-Asian dining culture, if only a distant cousin.


Chicken fried rice, Peruvian style

We see it again in what winds up being my favorite dish at Flama Llama: a peppery chicken fried rice ($15) that's not quite the same as you'll find on menus up and down the street, but mainly because it's served with the distinctly Peruvian aji chili pepper sauce. If you want something more Asian than that, Flama Llama has a couple of wanton dumpling dishes it would like you to try.

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