Is Peruvian cuisine, the intricate fusion of hundreds of years of Spanish, Chinese, West African, and Japanese immigration and native culture, the next big thing in world food obsessions?
It would appear so.
According to the Wall Street Journal, culinary commanders from around the globe like France's Michel Bras, Denmark's René Redzepi, and America's Dan Barber gathered in Lima in September for a kind of high-end food festival of the famous; Spain's Ferran Adriá, head chef of El Bulli and called "the Salvador Dalí of the kitchen" by Gourmet magazine, is making a documentary film about the food culture there; and a Zagat Survey shows four times the number of Peruvian restaurants in New York, San Francisco, Miami, Los Angeles, Boston, and Philadelphia than it did 10 years ago.
As is the case with most food trends, the Valley is somewhat slow to hop aboard the gastronomical bandwagon, with a handful of restaurants, like El Farol in Phoenix and Inka Fest and Contigo Peru in Mesa, quietly catering to those in need of a Peruvian food fix. So it is either by slim chance or sheer accident that chef Walter Salazar came to Tempe in August to take over ownership of Villa Peru from chef Gabriella Arizola, who had run the restaurant for about a year.
Originally from Lima, Salazar and his family came to the United States, to Tucson, in 2000. In 2009, Salazar headed up Inca's Peruvian Cuisine, owned by Fatima Campos, who's opening a second location in the Scottsdale Promenade. With a desire to run his own restaurant, Salazar moved to the Valley and created a new menu based on traditional Peruvian cuisine, employing members of his family to help with front- and back-of-the-house duties.
Located in a strip mall on the southeastern corner of Scottsdale and McKellips roads, Villa Peru separates itself from its neighbors with a storefront patio lined with oleanders and a scalloped orange banner. Inside, it's a cozy, carpeted room with walls swathed in warm yellow paint. A flatscreen TV playing various concert DVDs is, for the most part, unnecessary, but when the educational travel video of Peru is running, you can't help watching.
And although the restaurant's absence of liquor means an absence of pisco, the grape brandy and national drink of Peru, cans of Peruvian soft drink Inca Kola, fresh fruit juices, and pitchers of the sweet-and-spicy chicha morada (Peruvian purple corn juice) routinely make their way out of the kitchen and onto tables along with bowls of crunchy toasted corn nuts called cancha.
The servers, including two of Salazar's daughters, are friendly, familiar with the food and the ingredients, and happy to take the time to walk you through any of the dishes — a good thing for those unaccustomed to the cuisine, which features an abundance of raw or cured seafood, onions, acidic and aromatic limes, potatoes (Peru has around 3,000 varieties of them), and tongue-tingling spice from fresh and fruity aji peppers. Salazar's lengthy menu attempts to assist with such descriptions as "magical lime" and "spices that will wake the dead," but it's still probably best to ask for assistance.
For starters, those desiring a bit of the visually familiar should try the anticuchos, small pieces of skewered marinated grilled beef or beef heart commonly sold on the streets of Lima. More unique are tasty potato dishes like papa rellena, mashed potatoes stuffed with seasoned ground beef and raisins, molded into an oblong shape, and fried until golden brown; and ocopa arequipeña, slices of boiled potatoes covered in a spicy sauce made of aji, walnuts, and huatacay, the Peruvian herb that turns it a vibrant green. Salazar adds his own touch by topping it with shrimp in addition to the traditional garnishes of hardboiled eggs and olives.
Not to be missed is the causa de langostinos, which Salazar keeps simple and traditional, forming cold yellow mashed potatoes mixed with key lime, onion, and chili into discs, layering them with Peruvian avocado and crab, then drizzling them with a creamy sauce.
Given Peru's emphasis on flavors from the ocean, lovers of seafood will appreciate several of Salazar's main courses. Standouts include jalea de mariscos featuring a fresh plateful of lightly breaded fish, shrimp, squid and clams tossed in salsa criolla (a condiment with an onion base) and served with fried yucas and a side of bright green, spicy Peruvian tartar sauce. And when there are specials (and quite often there are) skip the arroz con marisco in favor of a hot steaming bowl of sudado de pescado, or Peruvian fish stew, heavy with chunks of steamed mahi mahi in a rich, red flavorful broth of fish, onions, tomatoes, and yuca served up with a side of rice for adding at will.
And like any good Peruvian chef, Salazar is focused on his ceviche, which he claims brings those-in-the-know to his restaurant. One of the most popular dishes among Peruvians, Salazar's is a straight-ahead version — bite-size pieces of white fish soaked in lime juice and chiles, topped with raw onions, and served with garnishes of sweet potato and giant kernels of Peruvian corn. Incredibly flavorful and refreshing, it's worth savoring alone or sharing as an appetizer with friends.
For meat lovers, signature dishes of lomo saltado de carne, sliced steak with sautéed tomatoes, hot peppers, and onions, and seco de carne con frejoles, pieces of slow-cooked beef smothered with a sauce of cilantro, carrots, and peas and served with beans, are satisfying, but pale in comparison to two unique dishes of Peruvian-style comfort food.
The first, called carapulcra limena, is a scrumptious stewed dish of beef, pork, and chicken, dried potatoes, red chiles, peanuts, and cumin. Even better is the second creation known as chili chicken or ají de gallina. Thin strips of chicken mixed with a creamy, spicy, and nutty sauce, with the color and heat courtesy of yellow Peruvian chiles, or ají amarillos, it was a favorite at the table and I could have easily enjoyed another helping.
What to skip altogether? According to our server, a daughter of Salazar, it's the sandwiches. When I inquired about them, she simply shook her head "no."
And when it comes to dessert, don't bother with the alfajor, a shortbread cookie sandwich with dulce de leche inside, or the rustic version of flan, leche asada, meaning, "roasted milk" in Spanish. Instead, order up a scoop of the exotic helado de lucuma. This orange-colored ice cream made from lucuma, a tropical fruit grown primarily in Peru, has a taste all its own: a bit nutty, a bit like custard, a bit like pumpkin. No wonder it's the country's third most popular ice cream flavor after vanilla and chocolate.
The next global food obsession? Maybe. For now, label me full and satisfied.