The next big thing
Peru’s popular dishes get their due in Henderson
Thu, Aug 14, 2008 (midnight)
Photo: Beverly Poppe
Peru, home to Macchu Picchu, some of the world’s highest mountains and one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, is also home to one of its most interesting cuisines. I’m a huge fan of ceviche (Peruvian and not Mexican in origin), and also of potatoes, tomatoes and strawberries, all of which are indigenous to that South American country.
Some have been touting the cooking of Peru as “the next big thing.” I don’t know if this is true, but I can say that Mi Peru, a South American grill housed in the Henderson space once home to Barbecue Masters, serves the best Peruvian food I’ve yet eaten in Vegas.
The restaurant belongs to Lima expat Raymi Mosca, who has brought the chef from his hometown as well. Mosca has a restaurant in Peru, but he comes to the food world from a real-estate background, and his passion and enthusiasm for the idiom are unbounded.
This is a boxy, simple room, punctuated by bottles of sweet Peruvian red wine gracing the sideboards, and a plasma TV playing an Andean travel video mounted on the rear wall. Pulsating Afro-Peruvian music is heard on the sound system. Raymi’s team of bilingual servers will take your order. Yes, they speak Spanish, but no, they are not from Peru. In fact, they are from Mexico, but not to worry. The chef is Peruvian, and talented.
Before you dig into Mi Peru’s menu, you may want to partake of what might just be the most interesting—and bizarre—list of beverage options in the city. First, there are the red wines, ones such as Santiago Queirolo Borgona from Peru’s Canete Valley, a mysterious and complex sweet wine that grew on me with every sip.
Naturally, there is homegrown Peruvian beer such as Cusquena, a classic lager rich in malt, with a nice residual sweetness that complements these dishes. Soft drinks are distinctive, such as Inka Cola, which I’d describe as having the flavor of Fleer’s Double Bubble gum, or chicha morada, a purple corn beverage that you might have to be an Incan to appreciate. Mi Peru also offers fresh passion-fruit juice, exotic and refreshing. I can’t resist.
Now you are ready for foods you are probably tasting for the first time. Bread comes first, followed by complimentary snacks, such as pickled radishes or salty roasted corn nuts, a staple of the Peruvian table.
Two types of unusual sauces come along with the hot rolls. One is orange and has a kick, a creamy sauce called rocoto. The other is Peru’s classic aji, herbs and peppers that you’ll want to smear on practically everything.
One of the more traditional appetizers is papa a la Huancaina, boiled potatoes served at room temperature, blanketed in a mild, canary-yellow cheese sauce. There is also ceviche de pescado, in this case chunks of mahi mahi marinated in lime juice, with several added spices.
My flat-out favorite dish on the menu is a soup, aguadito con pollo, a light-green broth flavored by chicken thighs, cilantro, spinach, garlic and vegetables. The soup is rounded out with rice and diced potatoes, so it’s substantial. I’m also ga-ga for parihuela, a soup based on fish, clams, shrimp, mussels and squid, in a tomatoey broth.
Thursday through Sunday, the restaurant serves Peru’s most popular dish, pollo a la brasa, or rotisserie chicken. What makes this version distinctive isn’t the bird, which is fine, but rather the aji sauce. Peruvians eat their roast chicken with fries and salad, so in that respect, they aren’t so different from us.
From there, you can work your way through a raft of beef, chicken and fish dishes, all of which come in oversized portions and are intensely flavored. One of the most satisfying is tacu tacu con lomo saltado, sautéed beef, onions and tomatoes, alongside the densest mass of stewed rice and beans on the planet.
If you are a rice fancier, don’t miss one of the chaufas, a Spanish-language corruption of chow fan, Cantonese for fried rice. There is lots of Asian influence in this cooking, as illustrated by the chaufa de pollo, which you can trick up with soy sauce and ginger, as is done in the Southern Hemisphere.
Peru has a huge coast and an enormous fishing industry, so it’s no surprise that these seafood preparations are impressive. Jalea is a literal mountain of deep-fried shellfish and corn, plus onions, potatoes and tartar sauce. Come hungry, or bring a large dog, if you are planning on this baby. Arroz con mariscos is excellent, too, basically shellfish paella with an attitude.
There are exotic desserts at the finish—lucuma ice cream, made from a pungent tropical fruit; alfajores, shortbread cookies sandwiched around dulce de leche, a caramelized milk sweet; and a homemade passion-fruit pie, a creamy filling on a graham cracker crust.
The next big thing? It’s already a big thing, as far as I’m concerned.