"Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost."
- John Quincy Adams (6th President of the United States of America)
(Pictures for this review taken with my Canon PowerShot SD100.
Once again, a hearty "thank you" to everyone who voted in my "What should Chubbypanda blog next?" poll. As promised, here's your moment of sweet reflection.)
While I'm not a great traveler, I am an ardent explorer. To me, there's nothing quite as fun as tromping through the concrete jungle of a new city with a map and digicam in my pocket, Rough Guide my pack, and trusty GPS clipped to my belt. I love discretely doing the whole tourist thing; hitting all the museums, shopping malls, and scenic points of interest, while staying nicely camouflaged as a blue-collar Joe. (Trust me, getting mugged once was enough.) As long as there's a decent hotel for me to crash in at night, I'm a happy camper. (I like camping too, but that's a different kind of exploration.)
Much like the difficulty Gastronomy 101's KT has had in taking her lunch break, I've found that as my ability to pay for trips increases, the time I have to make them decreases proportionally. At this point in my career, I've hit the homeostatically unhappy medium of not having either enough disposable income or free time to conquer another great city. So, I've found other places to explore, such as new restaurants, cities closer to home, and even home itself (Irvine or Saratoga, depending of if I'm in SoCal or NorCal). My favorite form of exploration, and the most economical in terms of time, is hunting down and trying regional variations of some of my favorite ethnic cuisines, which is how I stumbled across Peruvian Kitchen in Fountain Valley.
A mid-sized, family run establishment, Peruvian Kitchen is located in an economic dead zone, sharing a tiny strip mall with the likes of a vacuum cleaner repair shop and a pan-martial arts dojo. Blink while you're driving by and you'll miss the shopping center entirely. If you're on the other side of the road, you won't even notice it. Unless you know exactly where the restaurant is, you'll have a hell of a time finding it.
A normal restaurant would have problems staying in business under these conditions. However, Peruvian Kitchen has attracted such a loyal following of locals and regulars with its stellar food that it's reasonably busy on most nights. Lunch time is the best time to visit, since the bulk of the restaurant's business occurs at night. During the day, the pace is much slower, and both the service and food are better. Regardless of when you go, you won't be disappointed.
The decor is an oddly pleasing casual jungle kitsch, full of golden tones, light woods, and hanging rushes. Plastic fish, the odd net, pictures of Peru, and a few native tchotchkes add a fanciful touch of whimsy to the experience. My favorites are the tiles with cute little fish outlines mounted above the bar and open kitchen. At night, the restaurant's muted lighting and candles make you feel like you're really dining in a small Peruvian village. ... Well, ok. Maybe more like you're dining in a classier rendition of Disney's Jungle Cruise. But, it's fun!
Service tends to be a hit or miss proposition, depending on the time of day and the number of other customers. It's consistently high if you go during lunch. If you go during a crowded night, you might have to wait a bit for your order to be taken or your check to arrive. However, at its worst, on a night when Cat swore that she thought our waiter was stoned, I would still have given the service a B. Just be prepared for slower service based on customer density.
For your tasty beverage, I recommend one of three specialty items; Maracuya, Chicha Morada, or Inca Kola. You can also go with any of their standard beers, wines, soft drinks, or mixed cocktails, but where's fun in that?
The only mildly adventurous should stick with the Maracuya, a high-quality passion fruit juice. It's tasty, but familiar and not terribly exciting.
The moderately adventurous should sample a frosty glass of Inca Kola, a Peruvian soft drink made from plantains that is practically the national beverage of Peru. It has a wonderfully mild taste that brings to mind the result of a sexy rendezvous between bananas and Coke. I'll bet you thought Mountain Dew was the true Mellow Yellow. Guess again.
Truly adventurous diners who want to make their waiter smile with approval should order the darkly mysterious Chicha Morada. This rich, sweet, and complex beverage is made by boiling Peruvian purple corn and adding sugar, pineapple, and ice. Once the mixture has cooled, it's strained, chilled, and is usually served without ice, since the nuanced flavors shouldn't be diluted any further. I can't really describe it. While you can certainly taste the constituent components, the whole is infinitely more wonderful.
Along with your drink selections, your waiter will also bring one of these heaping baskets of nummy garlic bread with a small container of dipping sauce on the side. The bread is freshly toasted and anointed with olive oil, garlic, and herbs. The dipping sauce is mildly spicy, made with cilantro, garlic, chilies, and olive oil. I usually only use the dipping sauce if I'm feeling like a little heat. Both the sauce and bread are quite good, but there's only so much seasoned oil on oily bread action I can take before the guilt kicks in.
Peruvian Kitchen focuses primarily on cuisine from Lima, Peru's capital and largest city, as well as on the cuisine of Peru's central coast, where Lima is located. The native food in this region is heavily influenced by the Chinese, Japanese, Italian, African, Spanish, Basque, and German immigrants who flooded into Peru during the 19th and early 20th centuries. As such, the dishes are both reassuringly familiar and intriguingly exotic.
(Ceviche de Snapper)
One example of this natural fusion is this Ceviche de Snapper, which boasts Peruvian influences in a Spanish-style dish. Generous strips of raw snapper are marinated with thinly sliced red onions in mouth-puckering ambrosia of lemon juice, lime juice, chili peppers, coriander, and garlic. It's served here with Wedges of boiled sweet potato and large kernels of fresh hominy.
While ceviche is one of the most popular dishes in the central coastal area of Peru, I would hesitate to recommend the version offered by Peruvian Kitchen as an appetizer. Although the fish is undoubtedly very fresh, the pieces are too large, making them hard to chew. The marinade, which goes by the fanciful name leche de tigre or "tiger's milk", is very strong. However, with a big bowl of rice to thin out the sourness, it would make a fine dinner all by itself. The portions are huge. Most of what looks like a heaping mound of red onion in the picture above is actually tasty snapper. I was only able to finish half by myself.
(Tiradito al Aji)
More to my taste is the Tiradito al Aji, which boasts much thinner slices of fish marinated in lime juice, pureed yellow Peruvian chili peppers, and ginger. Sources are unclear as to whether the thinner slices of fish should be attributed to Japanese or Italian influences. However, with the use of the Peruvian chili peppers, traditionally aji limo, the Andean flavors in the dish are more pronounced. Unlike ceviche, onion and sweet potato are not served, although hominy is included.
This is an excellent appetizer. The thinner slices of fish translate to a finer texture, and the marinade for the tiradito is more subtle than the one used for the ceviche. It also works wonderfully as an entree, where it goes under the name Tiradito Mancora, and is served with white rice, fried yucca, and hominy.
(Anticuchos de Corazon)
Of course, not everyone is a fish lover. For those people, I recommend this appetizer of Anticuchos de Corazon, which should make Eddie Lin from Deep End Dining quite happy. Thin slices of tender beef hearts are marinated in a spicy blend of vinegar, garlic, and chili peppers. The pieces are then threaded onto wooden skewers and grilled to perfection before being served with broiled potato.
The flavor is very well controlled. The marinade is delicious, and only the faintest hint of the gaminess that characterizes all organ meats is left behind. The texture is very similar to beef filet, although more tender and crunchy. Peruvian Kitchen also offers anticuchos made with beef, chicken heart, or seafood.
(Yucca al la Huancaina)
For vegetarians, or anyone who likes cheese sauce, I suggest the Yucca a la Huancaina, which should also make Eddie happy. Yucca, also known as cassava or manioc, is a starchy root vegetable common in South America and Southeast Asia. In its raw state it contains two compounds, linamarase and cyanogenic glucosides, which combine to release cyanide when ingested. Thorough rinsing and processing, or cooking under extremely high heat, are required in order to neutralize the toxins. Although it is quite deadly if improperly treated, its ability to proliferate has made it the major starch source in a number of countries. Still, accidents involving improperly treated yucca have resulted in deaths as recently as last year.
Yucca a la Huancaina originated in the Huancayo, the capital of the central highlands region of Junin. Before the Spanish moved their stronghold to Lima, Huancayo held the dubious honor of being Peru's provisional capital during Francisco Pizarro's occupation. Huancaina, the Huancayo-style of serving boiled starch with a sauce made from cream, mustard, chili peppers, garlic, flour, olives, eggs, cheese, and huacatay, is a meld of Spanish and Peruvian. In Yucca a la Huancaina, balls of mashed yucca are stuffed with cheese before being boiled and covered with the spicy cheese sauce. The texture of the yucca is similar to very dense potato, and the sauce is reminiscent of both nacho cheese sauce and Béchamel sauce, with an additional degree of refinement; delicious. For the less adventurous, Peruvian Kitchen also offers Papa a la Huancaina, or Huancayo-style potatoes, which are almost as good.
Appetizers aside, let's move on to the entrees.
One of the most interesting facets of Peruvian cuisine is the genre of fusion food called "Chifa". A derivation of the Mandarin Chinese words "chi fan", meaning "eat rice" or "mealtime", Chifa is the Peruvian term for both traditional Chinese food and the fusion between Chinese cuisine and Peruvian cuisine. Lomo Saltado, made by stir frying strips of tender beef, French fries, tomato, onion, vinegar, and chilies, is a popular member of the Chifa family and another of my favorite dishes at Peruvian Kitchen. The starch on starch action between the lightly salted white rice and beef gravy coated fries blows me away each time. The fries will get soggy from the gravy very quickly, but I like them that way.
(Arroz con Pollo)
More traditionally Spanish is this Arroz con Pollo. Tender chunks of chicken are braised with rice, garlic, onion, chicken stock, peas, tomatoes, chili peppers, saffron, paprika, olives, red bell peppers, and enough chopped cilantro to choke a cow. Did I mention that you can really taste the cilantro?
Each bite of the delightfully moist and fluffy rice fills your mouth with chickeny goodness. In some ways, those large chunks of chicken on top are merely garnish, as their delicious flavor has already seeped in to every grain of rice. This is Cat's favorite dish. She gets it practically every time. Now, count up all the dishes I've shown you so far, factor in that little tidbit of information and the fact that I'm on a diet, and figure out how many times I've been to this restaurant conducting research for this article. It's a strenuous task, but someone has to do it.
The last stop on our tasty tour of Peru is Tacu-Tacu. I have no idea how many cuisines contributed to this dish, but it's something else entirely. Remember how much I like starch on starch action? Here's a platter that's just disturbingly sexy in a drunken, one-night-stand-with-someone-you-know-is-never-going-to-call-you-back sort of way. At the base is a mound of refried beans and white rice, which have been stir-fried together. That's right. Together. In a sinfully hedonistic, crispy on the outside, creamy with al dente bits on the inside, patty of delectable, heart-clogging delight. On top of that, a perfectly seasoned and grilled county steak full of juicy and flavorful beefy goodness. To either side, long halves of fried plantain with their rich, crunchy sweetness. Add one egg, sunny-side up, so that when your fork pieces the delicate yolk, the golden nectar within runs out and over the entire, sensually voluptuous experience.
Is it just me, or is it hot in here?
Peruvian Kitchen - A bit taste of Peru. Tour the central coast with your tongue and taste fusion at its finest.
Inca Kola - 2.10
Chicha Morada - 2.10
Ceviche de Snapper - 13.95
Tiradito al Aji - 13.95
Anticuchos de Corazon - 7.50
Yucca Huancaina - 7.00
Lomo Saltado - 10.95
Arroz con Pollo - 10.95
Tacu-Tacu - 12.50
8610 Warner Ave.
Fountain Valley, CA 92708-3132