First Taste

First Taste: A Solid Start for a New Peruvian Spot in Mesa

We're here to help with your drink choice. It's the chica morada.
We're here to help with your drink choice. It's the chica morada. Chris Malloy
When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out, let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened — an occasion to sample a few items and satisfy curiosities (both yours and ours).

Restaurant: Taste of Peru
Location: 1245 West Guadalupe Road, Suite B7-B8, Mesa
Open: About two months
Eats: Peruvian
Price: $10 to $35
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Friday; noon to 9 p.m. Saturday to Sunday

click to enlarge Crisp-fried corn bobs and gathers atop a short glass of leche de tigre. - CHRIS MALLOY
Crisp-fried corn bobs and gathers atop a short glass of leche de tigre.
Chris Malloy
At Taste of Peru, a Mesa restaurant opened on January 3, your meal starts with cancha — or toasted Peruvian corn. A tiny dish holds long kernels, smooth and crunchy, with salt grains clinging to the oily slopes. These get your thirst going, and a server will rattle off the list of drinks. The options here include chicha morada, Peruvian sodas, Inca Kola, and fruit juices.

A fountain turning violet liquid, glimpsed on the counter that runs beneath the small window into the back kitchen, supplies your answer. It's chica morada, the ancient Andean drink. Taste of Peru makes it in house, boiling purple corn and pineapple. Spices like cinnamon and clove join the mix. The beverage gets a subtle finishing of lime. It has a smooth, complex, low-toned sweetness. Your first glass vanishes very fast.

The service, too, is nearly flawless — or it was during lunch without much of a crowd. It's attentive and earnest without feeling close to overbearing, enough to make you feel remembered as you watch soccer on the wall-mounted flat screen, gnawing your skewered beef heart.

Douglas and Clara Sanguino are not from Peru, but they oversee a casual restaurant serving classic Peruvian dishes made with ingredients common in the country, including corn, tomatoes, and potatoes. Roast chickens are a menu cornerstone. So are Peru’s many raw-fish preparations. Excitingly, so too are the stir-frys that arose in the coastal-but-mountainous South American country following immigration from China.

click to enlarge Potato coins smothered with huancaina, a cool sauce of queso fresco and aji amarillo. - CHRIS MALLOY
Potato coins smothered with huancaina, a cool sauce of queso fresco and aji amarillo.
Chris Malloy
Though young, Taste of Peru is doing a solid job of cooking these staples and others, like some compelling starters. 

The Leche de tigre, for one, is an interesting version. It fills a short glass that cones out some, citrus-charged broth bobbing with crisp-fried cancha and chopped cilantro. The fish in its translucid depths is tilapia, ground nearly to smithereens. The broth is sharply salty, with not a lot of chile heat or complexity. It’s not as bracing as leche de tigre can be, but, like the cancha served alone, it revs your appetite.

Potatoes in huancaina sauce are a more complete option. Five neat coins of soft potato sit on a dish. They are blanketed in a pale-yellow sauce with a creamy, smothering density — though the sauce itself is fairly light. It gains its intensely yellow appearance from aji amarillo chiles imported from Peru. Though a spicy chile, no heat comes through. The sauce has a deeply mild, understated flavor, somewhere between the cool vegetal tones of a yellow pepper and queso fresco, the cheese being another component.

click to enlarge Lomo saltado — stir-fried diced beef shot through with meaty potato fries. - CHRIS MALLOY
Lomo saltado — stir-fried diced beef shot through with meaty potato fries.
Chris Malloy
Many avenues for a main course can be taken. Think ceviche with thick strips of fish, or roast chicken, or jalea — a plate heavy with mixed fried fish. But the Peruvian-Chinese route was calling. The lomo saltado, stir-fried beef, was ordered since it was starred as a specialty, making it leap out from a menu section of fried rices.

This lomo saltado is a hearty plate of food. Long meaty fries tunnel through browned beef loin and fat onion petals. A light soy-based sauce soaks the bottom, and tastes so similar to beef juices that you might confuse the two in your mind for a moment. The tomato wedges on top aren’t so great out of season, but the beef is chewy, the fries hot and soft. By the time you near the end, those fries will be sopping with juices. It’s a workaday plate of food that won’t dazzle, but will fill you up warmly.

One meal at Taste of Peru stirs some interest. It's definitely worth a second stop, ideally once the restaurant gains its liquor license (it hopes to in a few weeks) and starts serving pisco-based drinks like a classic pisco sour.

But even without that prospect, right now in Mesa there’s a lush purple corn beverage and skewer of beef hearts with your name on them, if you want.
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy