Ñusta's Café brings to Arlington a cuisine that's hard to find around Dallas-Fort Worth: Peruvian. Although many restaurants incorporate Peruvian dishes such as ceviche, you can count on one hand the number of local spots that are dedicated to authentic Peruvian food.
The cuisine, which incorporates influences from Spain, Asia and Africa, features lots of seafood and potatoes. A recent Wall Street Journal article called Peruvian food "the next big thing," noting a wave of restaurants opening in major U.S. cities and an interest among international chefs such as Spain's Ferran Adrià, who is making a documentary on the food scene in Peru.
Ñusta's is owned by Mari Gonzalez and Cesar Melendez, who work together at a day job but shared a dream of having a restaurant. Mari grew up in the restaurant business; Michael was a chef. After finding a location in Arlington that had been a failed noodle shop, they opened Ñusta's in late June. It's a clean space with wall hangings and vintage photos that soften its harsh edges.
The restaurant, which is only open Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, earns points for expanding our horizons with a cuisine that's still relatively rare here. But what's even better is that Melendez constructs his dishes carefully and cooks with conviction and love. You feel that on the plate. Nearly every dish we tried was impeccable, yet exuded a personal touch that made us feel like we were guests in someone's home.
Though small, the menu had a good selection of appetizers, most so inexpensive we pretty much tried them all. A sampler with three appetizers was a steal for $6.99. It came with a flawless ceviche, with bite-size chunks of snapper, firm yet tender, and slivered red onion in a refreshing citrus marinade. Also mixed in were kernels of large Peruvian corn, whose hominy-esque chewiness made for a fine contrast to the tenderness of the fish.
On the side came an adorable garnish: two tiny balls of candied sweet potato, like little round jewels. Their slightly crunchy, slightly chewy texture was an unexpected treat.
Also on the sampler was causas, a classic Peruvian dish in which mashed potatoes are mixed with an ingredient of choice, then coated with panko crumbs and fried. Ñusta's version combined the potatoes with chopped shrimp. The exterior was a crisp, light, golden shell. Inside, the potatoes had an almost custardlike texture: smooth and soft, yet dense. We appreciated that these were served hot but not blisteringly so, reflecting a thoughtfulness from the kitchen.
Item No. 3 on the sampler was Huancaina de rocoto, or boiled potatoes with creamy sauce. Potatoes were cooked until barely tender, then sliced into rounds and draped with a velvety sauce flavored with the subtle aji pepper, a Peruvian favorite. For flair, they topped each potato disc with an olive -- more attention to detail.
Empanadas are one of Peru's best-known dishes, and Ñusta's had one as an appetizer ($2.99) that was beautifully made. The pastry was light and resilient, and enclosed a filling of ground beef with raisins that had a subtle sweetness, giving the filling a delightful complexity.
They also do a tamale ($3.49) filled with a strip of tender beef. The texture of the masa was unique -- more cakey, less moist and doughy than the usual tamale. Though a nice change of pace, it felt a little dry by comparison.
Entrees included lomo saltado ($9.99), a Peruvian classic that you could liken to a Chinese stir-fry or Mexican fajitas. Strips of sirloin, juicy and tender, were stir-fried with bell pepper, tomato and red onion in a soy-based sauce to which Melendez added red wine and vinegar for a sweet-and-sour pucker that made it feel like a Polynesian dish. But what makes the dish memorably exotic is the fact that, when it's served, they also throw french fries into the mix. The fries started out crisp but then absorbed the cooking liquid and the jus from the vegetables.
Desserts are made by a family friend. Alfajores ($2.49), shortbread cookies drizzled with caramel, were barely bite-size and fun to pop in the mouth, but the show-stopper was choco-flan ($2.99), a luscious combination of two desserts in one: a layer of chocolate cake on the bottom, and a super-creamy flan on top.
Sweet and doting service was provided by chef Melendez's niece Ornella, who goes to school during the week. Melendez often pops his head out to see if you like what he made. After just one visit, you feel like part of the family.