Cafe Reviews

War-Winning Cuisine

I think I know why American cuisine is often so boring. We've never been overthrown by a hostile nation. With such a homogenous pool of settlers, Americans have never been forced to incorporate exotic cultures into their cooking. And so, our national heritage has been allowed to wallow in the (yawn) basics -- meat and potatoes, hamburgers, hot dogs, tuna casserole and fish sticks.

Even as immigrants arrived in the early years, their cuisines were bastardized to please soft U.S. palates. Thus the torpid chop suey, spaghetti and meatballs, or Mexi-bake casseroles made with hamburger, Fritos, Velveeta and taco sauce -- dishes that would have been tarred, feathered and ridden out on a rail in their countries of so-called origin.

Our kitchens could benefit from a little gourmet guerilla shake-up. An invasion of foreign chefs bearing exotic spices, unique herbs, romantic fruits and glamorous sauces could put passion into our everyday pot roast.

All we have to do is look to faraway lands like Peru to see what fine things the convergence of cultures has done to a nation's cooking. And now, to taste the magic for ourselves, all we have to do is hop in our cars and motor out to the southwest corner of Warner and Dobson, home to the new Peruvian restaurant called, appropriately enough, Peruanitos. This little place is an outright gem, combining all the best of friendly service, upbeat atmosphere, low prices and fascinating multi-fusion South American food in one colorful package.

Derived from the Incan empire, Peruvian cuisine is a melting pot of Spanish, Asian, European, African and ancient American influences. From this comes a tapestry woven with marvelous fruits, roots, potatoes, vegetables, nuts, cereals, seeds, grains and low-fat meats like llama and vicuña. While we won't find any alpaca entrees at Perunanitos, we do indulge in the exhilarating flavors, colors, aromas, textures and fragrances that comprise the luscious Latin American dining experience.

Owned by Amanda Watson de Arriola, Peruanitos opened just two months ago under the direction of Amanda's husband, general manager Mario. The de Arriola family -- relocated from Peru -- runs all aspects of the operation, including crafting the authentic Latin American dishes that are served. And while the nondescript strip mall on the edge of Chandler is easy to miss, it's likely this place won't be a secret for long. Folks in search of authentic ethnic cuisines already know the area well -- the restaurant is next door to one of the Valley's best dim sum restaurants, C-Fu Gourmet, and kitty-corner from a popular Oriental market, Lee Lee.

The de Arriolas' timing couldn't be better, either. From Manhattan to Miami, Peruvian cuisine is emerging as the latest Latin darling of international dining aficionados. Recently, and for the first time ever, the distinctive dishes were showcased at New York's French Culinary Institute, at a three-week event at the United Nations dining room, and in the inaugural Peruvian Gastronomy Festival in south Florida.

Such a warm, welcoming ambiance is another sign of success to come. Mario greets us at the door, and leads us to our choice of white plastic-topped tables set among bright yellow, red and white walls, with tiles inset like a confetti mosaic. Art is worth admiring, including pictures of the Peruvian countryside, a large breakfront packed with Andean figurines, woolen rugs hung on walls, and a pair of giant, stuffed toy llamas. And while a big-screen TV is out of place, it's showing an international soccer match, and the sound thankfully is turned off. Smooth Latin American acoustics are piped in at lunch, and the vigorous live guitar and keyboard tunes at dinner lift spirits -- Mario and crew play a "musica negra" Mayan-Creole style of music from the heart of Baranco.

Peru is about potatoes, and Peruanitos uses them in good form. Although we don't get the rainbow varieties found in the native land -- purple, red, rose, transparent, black -- the simple white spud is elevated in dishes such as a papas a la huancaina appetizer. This unassuming-looking dish packs a wallop, layering thick slabs of boiled potato and onion strips with a neon-yellow, creamy cheese sauce topped with sliced hard-boiled egg and black olives. The color comes from palillo, a highly aromatic herb found in the highland city of Huancayo; the slow-burning heat comes from the fiery rocoto or aji amarillo chile sauce dashed in. I couldn't say if the sauce uses traditional llama-milk cheese, but I know it's delicious -- I use the dinner serving of soft French bread to sop every last drop.

The starter is similar to a luncheon entree of papa a la diabla, which, despite its devilish name, gains heat only with generous splashes of the chilled Rocoto Hot Pepper Sauce served alongside (it's a rain-forest product made with chile manzano, and it's delightful). Here, the potato slices are topped with white onion, hard-boiled egg and a mild, chewy, ricotta-like cheese.