Cafe Reviews

Aimless and Andes

If I'd blinked, I wouldn't have noticed it. But there, tucked in a nameless Fry's shopping center in a particularly anonymous-looking part of bland, sprawling Mesa, lay a hidden jewel: a Peruvian restaurant.

My new game had paid off.

I was trying a new experiment in driving. I decided that, from now on, as I motored around the Valley, I would slow down and look at everything. Yes, everything. No matter how much time it takes.

There is a whole world to explore, and I'd been ignoring it by obsessing over the small stuff. But no more. No more staring at brake lights while I'm stuck in traffic. No more glancing at my dog hair-encrusted upholstery as I race from one appointment to the next, sore at myself for not making time to get my car detailed.

It was time to turn my focus outward and explore, taking a different route to or from each destination as often as I could. I know where my home is; my new game is to discover how many interesting ways I can take to get there. And to look, look, look as I do so, driving slowly to absorb it all, until my head swivels unconsciously like a bobble-head doll whenever I get behind the wheel. I hope I don't cause any accidents, but at least I won't yap on a cell phone, eat a meal or put on makeup behind the wheel like so many other people do.

This new game is how I found Peruvian Palace, nestled in the southeast crook of a corner strip mall with a Fry's and Wal-Mart, crammed between several fast-food feed houses: Cousins Subs, Kyoto Bowl and Papa John's Pizza.

A similar wandering is how I came across the Valley's first-ever and only other Peruvian place, the lovely Peruanitos, almost two years ago. Except that time I was merely lost, recklessly off-course as I scurried past the restaurant at Dobson and Warner in Chandler.

This brand new Peruvian Palace is surrounded by speed-stuffing spots where you can get your food so fast, you can order, eat and leave before your car engine cools down. Yet Peruvian Palace apologizes up front that, "Because some of our dishes are made to order, entrees will require 10 to 15 minutes to prepare. We appreciate your patience." On one visit, a worried owner warns me that the kitchen is a little slow today; is an 18-minute wait okay?

My patience? I should thank them. The wait enables me to watch a Spanish soap opera playing on the ceiling-hung TV on one visit, a Latin Miss America pageant on another. No, I don't speak Spanish, but it doesn't take a translator to see the agony in the eyes of the women in the telenovela or the joy in the face of the beauty winning her crown over a stageful of heavily mascaraed competitors. The fact that the animated commentary sounds like "ay-yi ay-yi buon oy oy" to my foreign ears makes it even better. Who makes time to watch such interesting, international fun, when there's laundry to be done, bills to be paid, meetings to make? I do, now.

During other meals at the Palace, I'm enveloped in conversation with my friends as we wait for our food, not stuffing our cheeks with breadsticks, rolls, chips and salsa, or any of the other pacifiers designed to keep us distracted at other restaurants. I've got time to appreciate the gorgeous mural of a South American royal courtyard slapped on the yellow walls, the collection of diners around me (some ethnic-looking folks, but also tables of senior citizens, some who look like house moms, and people in stuffy suits and ties). There's a trim, rugged construction worker at the next table who keeps me fascinated until his wife shows up.

I don't like to compare competing restaurants (judging each on its own merits), but with only two Peruvian choices in the Valley, it's inevitable. The food at Peruanitos is a bit better; the place more elegantly showcases a melting pot of Spanish, Asian, European, African and ancient American influences that came from the Incan Empire. For sure, Peruanitos has a much broader menu, with more dramatic choices incorporating the marvelous fruits, roots, potatoes, vegetables, nuts, spices and low-fat meats that comprise the Latin American dining experience. Peruanitos is high-energy, with loud music, quick service and a rainbow decor.

Yet I love the laid-back, family kitchen feel of the Palace, where I can ask what the soup of the day is, and our server will agree that there is one – and then eagerly turn away to bring me some. Gentle nudging gets her to check with the kitchen to see what it is first – it's sopa criolla de carne, essentially beef-vegetable-noodle soup, but dynamic with lots of earthy herbs and a tender round of corn on the cob. It takes awhile to get the big bowlful of steaming broth, but every comforting spoonful lets me know it's time well spent.

Peruvian Palace can be frustrating for the uptight diner, as one evening visit finds the menu stripped of what we want – the kitchen is out of our first two appetizer and entree choices, though it's only 6:30 – and other regular offerings are available with restrictions. An appetizer of anticuchos, for example, marinated and skewered meats, is available only Friday through Sunday, and not after 8 p.m. Jalea, a hearty platter of fried fish, shrimp, oysters, squid and octopus with marinated onions and fried cassava (yucca) can't be had after eight. Chupa de camarones, a savory chowder brimming with sweet shrimp, potatoes, rice, peas, cheese, poached eggs and a touch of chile, may be savored only on Fridays. Picarones (hand-pulled, anise-sweetened pumpkin donuts) are weekend treats, as is breakfast, like hidalgo encebollado (grilled beef liver with onions) and lomito al jugo (stir-fried beef over rice with pickled onion and tomato), to be hunted down only on Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 to noon.

Several Peruvian dishes here are weekend-only options as well, including one of my favorites, carapulera, a classic creation of pork in peanut sauce with potatoes that are meticulously mashed and freeze-dried. Many people may care about such scheduling challenges, poor things. Me, I've got all the time in the world to sit back and enjoy what appears on my table.

I usually can count on tamal peruano, a massive bundle of loose masa, more tart and savory than its Mexican cousin and stuffed with juicy shredded pork or chicken, Kalamata olives, peanuts and hard-boiled egg under salsa criolla (chopped tomato and white onion slivers). Ceviche mixto is so enchanting it's worth calling ahead to make sure it's there – fistfuls of sparkling fresh calamari rings and tentacles, firm shrimp, white fish, krab and mussel meat are "cooked" in a vivid cocktail of lime juice, Peruvian hot peppers and onions, alongside corn on the cob and yam. Ask for a side of cancha, crunchy roasted corn kernels that go brilliantly with the soft seafood.

And the Palace serves Peru's traditional potato appetizers in fine form – the papa à la huancaina (an uncomplicated layering of cold boiled potato and onion strips with a neon-yellow, creamy chile-spiced cheese sauce, hard-boiled egg and black olives), or papas rellena (mashed potatoes stuffed with spicy ground beef, sweet raisins and egg, fried golden and topped with red onion and black olives).

I'm liking this "taking it slow" thing. An easy pace draws out the pleasure of a stunning seco de carne con frijoles y arroz, a deceptively simple-looking stew of fork-tender beef studded with peas and bright cilantro, rice and beans. And there's no rushing through a succulent adobo de chancho, marinated, slow-cooked pork with a spicy undercut of serious chile heat, alongside fluffy rice and sweet potatoes. Aji de gallina actually demands a second look, with its unappetizing appearance of beige baby food and texture of peanut butter. But relax – the stew is a charming mishmash of shredded chicken, walnut-milk sauce, potato, olive and egg, with a touch of peppery flair.

How often do I make time to enjoy dessert at lunch? Now, I do, dipping with great interest into mazamorra morada, a gelatinous pudding crafted from mauve-colored corn that reminds me of chilled fruit pie filling.

This new car game is the best. Drivers in a mad hurry won't want to be behind me, trapped by my calm turtle pace. But folks wanting to enjoy their time alive would do very well to follow me, and closely. First stop: the Peruvian Palace.