Early in 2013, the National Restaurant Association took the pulse of more than 1,800 professional chefs and nearly 200 professional bartenders with its annual “What’s Hot” culinary survey designed to predict restaurant menu trends for the coming year. Considered the definitive forecast of culinary inclinations, the survey’s “Ethnic Cuisines and Flavors” category was topped by Peruvian cuisine which is not only hot, it’s cool. It’s hip, swanky and trendy. It’s so “happening” that even New Mexico, which is sometimes years behind culinary trends, has embraced it. Since 2011, three Peruvian restaurants have launched in the Duke City.
Peruvian cuisine is so diverse–recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as the nation with the most local plates, some 491 officially registered dishes in all–that there is very little cross-over among the three Duke City denizens of Peruvian food. The antecedent for hopefully several other Peruvian restaurants is the highly acclaimed Pollito Con Papas which, thanks to arguably the best rotisserie chicken in Albuquerque, had to triple its real-estate within a year of its 2011 launch. The most centrally-located of Albuquerque’s three Peruvian restaurants is Sara’s Pastries & Deli, ensconced in the increasingly familiar Journal Center Market Place launched in February, 2013.
The most recent entry among the triumvirate of Peruvian restaurants is Taste of Peru which launched in March, 2013. Taste of Peru is ensconced within the Manzano Shopping Center in the southeast intersection of Juan Tabo and Lomas. We learned about the restaurant from Peruvian expatriates sitting at an adjacent table while dining at Sara’s. Their enthusiasm for the food at all three of Albuquerque’s Peruvian restaurants bordered on infectious–comparable (and this is no stereotype) to the expressive enthusiasm Italians have for their cuisine.
Taste of Peru is owned Deborah Palma, an admitted aficionado of Peruvian gastronomy. Deborah didn’t have to search too hard to find a chef, hiring her fiance, a Peruvian native whose grandparents owned a traditional family restaurant in Peru. Chef Mantilla earned his chef’s certification in Lima, Peru, touted by the International Summit of Gastronomy as the “gastronomic capital of the Americas.” That’s some serious street cred in the culinary world.
With an impressive culinary training and family heritage, Chef Mantilla is proud to offer Albuquerque traditional Peruvian cuisine prepared from family recipes perfected over a century. The specialty of the house is rotisserie chicken, prepared in a traditional coal oven procured directly from Peru. The menu is far from being a compendium of all culinary greatness that is Peru; it would take a much larger kitchen to offer more than a modicum of the specialties which make Peru such a favored culinary destination. Instead, the menu showcases a select few items: four appetizers, three entrees, three desserts and a number of daily specials.
From the outside, Taste of Peru blends right in with its strip mall neighbors in a sprawling adobe-hued complex. Step inside and you’re warmly embraced by the decorative touches and colors of Peru. The Peruvian flag is proudly displayed. A flat screen television runs a slideshow presentation showcasing the beauty of the Land of the Incas. At other times, it’s tuned to the most recent Peruvian soccer game. Each table is adorned with intricate Peruvian tablecloths.
Not entirely dissimilar to the same named offering in New Mexico are Peruvian empanadas. Taste of Peru offers two types of savory empanadas–one made with chicken and one with beef. The beef empanadas are baked in pastry dough stuffed with ground beef, onions, raisins and spices . They’re mostly savory but are tinged with sweetness imparted by the raisins. The empanadas de pollo are moist and delicious with a juicy and flavorful chicken complemented by caramelized onions. Both are terrific.
Three Peruvian condiments add personality and heat to the flavor profile of the cuisine. New Mexicans who appreciate heat and believe pain is a flavor will enjoy the rocoto dip. Rocoto is among the oldest of domesticated peppers, having been harvested in Peru and Bolivia for at least 5000 years. It’s a fiery pepper ranging from 225,000 to 350,000 Scoville units, making it one of the ten hottest chili peppers in the world. The rocoto dip is fantastic, by far our favorite! Also served are two Aji pepper dips, one almost mustard-yellow and the other more greenish. The Aji dip lends a mild kick and a fruity pepper flavor.
Peruvian fervor for Pollos a las Brasas, the South American-style of rotisserie chicken borders on fanaticism. If you’re used to to the desiccated grocery store rotisserie chicken, you’re probably wondering what’s so special about Peruvian rotisserie chicken. Perhaps the most apt description would be flavor intensity. The skin has the most intense flavor, char and crispiness, but the flavor penetrates deeply with charcoal and citrus notes. A half chicken means you’ll get a breast, leg and thigh. This gorgeous bird, roasted in low heat for a long time, is moist and juicy with a brown, craggy skin. The chicken is served with a salad and your choice of sides (Yellow Peruvian beans, sweet fries or white rice). The beans are ivory yellow and similar in size, shape, texture and even in flavor to our ubiquitous pinto bean.
A century or more before Asian fusion cuisine became a culinary fad, Chinese immigrants arrived in Peru looking for work. They integrated their own culinary techniques and ingredients to Peru’s diverse culinary vernacular. The most visible aspect of the Chinese influence on the Peruvian table is Lomo Saltado, a Peruvian stir-fry. The bravado of this dish is that it dares offer two starches–rice and potatoes–in one dish, a juxtaposition Americans might find a bit strange. This hybrid stir-fry is made with thinly sliced beef, tomatoes, peppers and onions blended in a pan with soy sauce and get this, French fries (another Peruvian passion). It’s a very interesting dish made even better with the Peruvian condiments (ketchup need not apply).
You’ll want to wash down your meal with Inka Kola, a soft drink created in Peru in 1935 and made with lemon verbena. Its flavor, somewhat reminiscent of cream soda, is considered an “acquired taste.” Not everybody will enjoy its unusually sweet fruitiness. It should be noted that in ever nation in which Coke A Cola has a presence, it outsells any indigenous soft drink. That’s true everywhere but in Peru where Inka Kola outsells even Coke.
Three standard dessert offerings–Crema Bolteada (Creme Brulee), Masamorra Morada (Corn Pudding) and Arroz Con Leche (Rice Pudding) are available, but the most tempting sweet treat might just be the alfajores, a favorite Peruvian cookie (two white-flour cookies joined together with a dulce de leche filling and sprinkled generously with confectioners sugar). These cookies are addictive, so good you’ll want a half dozen at a sitting.
Taste of Peru offers just an introduction to how good and how diverse Peruvian cuisine can be. You can eat through the restaurant’s entire menu in just a few visits and will probably discover a new favorite with every visit.
Taste of Peru
840 Juan Tabo Blvd, N.E., Suite B
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 12 April 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Chicken Empanada, Beef Empanada, Alfajores, Rotisserie Chicken, Lomo Saltado