Considering that Arcadia isn't a mecca for any kind of Asian food, it seemed a shame when Sushi Mishima, a casual Japanese joint, closed its doors last year. No, the place wasn't destination sushi by anyone's definition, but it was an affordable and friendly neighborhood spot.
But you know what? I like the new tenant even better. It's called El Farol Peruvian Restaurant, and it brings a welcome bit of diversity to the local dining scene.
Sure, Japanese food may still be scarce in this 'hood, but where else in Phoenix can you find Peruvian cuisine? Beats me. As far as I know, you'd have to hightail it out to the East Valley to find other restaurants specializing in dishes from Peru.
El Farol, 5534 East Thomas Road
Cebiche de pescado: $7.50
Quarter chicken: $4.50
Hours: Wednesday through Monday, 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
So I like El Farol for the sheer novelty factor alone. And the food is pretty good. There's something uniquely appealing about Peruvian cooking, with its subtle spicing — a far cry from the mouth-searing south-of-the-border stuff I've become accustomed to — and its celebration of complex, tangy flavors. Although the menu here is extremely compact, you can still get a sense of the native cuisine from the handful of different offerings.
That is, unless you're a vegetarian. Most meat-averse people I know hope for a salad or a side dish to tide them over in a pinch, but El Farol doesn't even have those. The lone appetizer sans meat is the papa a la Huancayna, thick slices of chilled boiled potato smothered in a creamy, bright yellow sauce of cheese and mildly spicy aji pepper. A couple of fat black olives and slices of hard-boiled egg served as a garnish.
Even if I were a vegetarian, though, I'd still come to El Farol — just to drink. Along with fountain soda, two kinds of imported pop (Inka Kola and Kola Inglesa), and a sugary, cinnamon and clove-tinged punch called chicha morada (made from blue corn and pineapple juice), there's super-cheap draft and bottled beer that tops out at three bucks apiece.
Meanwhile, the specialty cocktail of the house is called a Pisco Sour, and it sure is easy to love. A citrus-y, sweet concoction made with Pisco (Peruvian grape brandy), a halo of foamy egg whites, and a fragrant dash of bitters, it rivals the mojito for quirky quaffability. I'd had this drink before, but it's still relatively hard to find at all but the most sophisticated local bars, so I took it as a good sign when one of my dining companions — who frequents Manhattan's Carlyle Hotel for its expertly mixed Pisco Sours — happily slurped hers down and ordered up a second one.
While I liked the papa a la Huancayna, the two other starters were a bit more intriguing. Cebiche de pescado was a plate of sliced raw tilapia marinated in a vibrant mixture of lime juice, cilantro, onion, and garlic until it was opaque but still extremely tender. It was served with soft chunks of sweet potato and two half-cobs of corn.
Another dish, causa, was somewhat of a mystery until it was brought to the table. On the menu, it was described as "mashed potato with_____ on lettuce." Seriously, there was a blank in the sentence, as if it were a Mad Lib. Turns out it was a cold appetizer that resembled a tiny, round birthday cake — if the frosting were mayonnaise and the inside a potatoey mash layered with tuna. Topped with olives and hard-boiled egg, the causa was an unlikely hit with my friends, who couldn't resist its comforting texture and interesting taste.
The one thing at El Farol that I just couldn't get into was the chupe de camarones, an entrée-sized bowl of thick rice soup filled with shrimp and chunks of potato. There was nothing offensive about it — it was simply the kind of dish that makes me reach for the salt and pepper after one taste.
On the flip side, I totally loved the jamón del país sandwich. It was described as "fresh country ham," but instead, it was sliced roasted pork, tucked into a soft, doughy roll with pink pickled onions and mayo — as delicious as it was simple. I'm craving another one right now.
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Pollo a la Brasa, a rotisserie chicken, had lightly crispy skin rubbed with seasonings, and the meat, though not juicy, was pretty moist. Even a quarter portion was a lot of food, and a steaming pile of white rice rounded out the dish.
The two other entrees were surprisingly similar. Saltado was sautéed beef, and sudado de pescado was braised fish; both were paired with a tangy jumble of tomatoes and red onions. But when it came down to it, I preferred the saltado, not only because the meat had a better flavor than the fish, but also because it came with a pile of crisp, skin-on French fries instead of rice.
Desserts aren't listed on the menu, so they can be a moving target. On my last visit, when I was determined to try them, there were only two: lucuma ice cream and blue corn pudding. Interestingly, although lucuma is a type of fruit native to Peru, the blue corn pudding, studded with cherries and pineapple, and sprinkled with cinnamon, had a much fruitier flavor than the ice cream, whose mild flavor reminded me of caramel. Both were tasty.
Sometimes it's refreshing to pass up the familiar for something new and different. For that reason alone, El Farol's worth a try.