Theres no shortage of Mexican and Central American food in North Texas. But South American cuisine not including those monster Brazilian meat palaces with their giant skewers is a bit tougher to find. ( Nustas Cafe in Arlington is one of the few Peruvian spots in Tarrant County.)
So when two count em, two pan-South American/Peruvian-inspired restaurants opened in December in Dallas, fans of ceviche and quinoa took notice. Fortunately, for the sake of their own survival, the places are very different. Nazca Kitchen is more of a fast casual stop with table service, a place you can pop by for a quick sit-down meal or takeout for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The more expensive, dinner-only Joyce and Gigis Kitchen is a bit more formal in its approach.
Yet both are the product of chef-driven ambitions: Nazca is the brainchild of Craig Collins, of the Red Hot & Blue BBQ chain, who fell in love with this type of food while traveling through Peru and Brazil. Joyce and Gigis is named after the mother-and-daughter team of Joyce Stenvall and Gigliola Aguilera, who wanted a place that honored their Bolivian roots. Both of their takes on South American culinary sensibilities are worth seeking out.
My first brush with Nazca Kitchen was frustrating. Located in a mini-mall near Central Expressway and Walnut Hill Lane in north Dallas, the place can be hard to find. (Hint: Enter the lot off Walnut Hill, instead of Central.)
But once seated in the light, bright interior designed by Hatsumi Kuzuu, known for other hot spots such as Tei-An, FT33 and Sissys Southern Kitchen & Bar I quickly forgot about the driving drama. The colados ($4.50), a refreshing drink made from fresh fruit, milk and ice, also helped put me in the right frame of mind. The mango-orange-passion fruit and the strawberry-banana colados were excellent and proved to be harbingers of good things to come. (Nazca also serves wine and South American beers, including Argentinas Quilmes, Perus Cusquena, and Brazils Palma Louca.)
Peruvian restaurants are known for their chicken and rice, and Nazcas take roasted half-chicken with a side-order choice of either quinoa, butternut squash, fries, jicama slaw, sauteed vegetables or sweet corn ($12) is succulently satisfying. The chicken, marinated for 24 hours and then roasted in a medium aji pepper sauce, is tender and has just a slight kick to it. I only wish the serving size were bigger.
If you think quinoa is just a drab substitute for rice, Nazcas version in a tahini glaze with pecans, broccoli, olives, tomato, feta and pepitas ($4, as a side order) will make you think again. The addictive butternut squash ($4 as a side order), with red onion, cranberry and almonds, is also a feast of flavors and textures.
The butter-leaf fish tacos ($12) grilled tilapia with cabbage, aji amarillo sauce and mango-lime relish, drizzled with aioli and served on butter-leaf lettuce or a corn/flour-mix tortilla are equally impressive but only come two per order and are not very big.
Finish it all off with a large wedge of the juicy rum bread pudding ($6), and youre good to go.
Ive yet to try the breakfasts, which seem like an appealing mixture of two continents: acai bowl with acai berries, granola, bananas and a drizzle of passion fruit ($8), or the perico wraps ($6), which are either chorizo and potato or spinach and bacon with scrambled eggs, cheddar cheese, cilantro, onions and peppers. If theyre anything like the lunches and dinners, thats reason enough to get up in the morning.
Joyce and Gigis Kitchen
You know you are in for a treat at Joyce and Gigis the minute the server brings out the bread the house-made mint bread with chimichurri butter is four slices of heaven. Its almost enough to make you forget how noisy the room is on a busy Saturday night.
For starters, we tried the empanada trio one each of cheese, beef and duck served with an aioli sauce ($9). The duck was slightly underwhelming, lacking the flavor richness of the other two, but this was a good way to kick off the meal. (Note: These empanadas are appetizer-size.)
With so many tempting entrees, its best to order family-style so you can sample several dishes. The chicken milanesa ($16), lightly fried chunks of chicken served over chicken-skin quinoa grits and with a pickled onion and herb salad, is a prime example of what Joyce and Gigis does so well: taking a relatively simple dish and elevating it without abandoning its essence. The chicken has just the right amount of crunch and tenderness, and its set off wonderfully by the grits.
The duck confit red risotto with plantains ($18) is a sensational blend of flavors. At first the dish may seem odd its topped with a poached egg and garnished with a pickled onion and tomato salad but it sports a balance of sweetness and spice thats addictive.
The Brazilian-themed feijoada ($17), a stew of pork shoulder, pork sirloin, chorizo and black beans, isnt quite as thick and hearty as you might expect, but it has a wonderfully subtle, smoky flavor.
The one slight disappointment is a slightly dry plum bread pudding ($9). .
But there was little time to worry about that as Gigi herself came out from the kitchen to chat with all the diners and ask them how they enjoyed their meals. Its a nice, homey touch that fits the charming atmosphere of the place.
As with Nazca, theyre giving a healthful, gourmet twist to a cuisine that many North Texans may have never tried.
So, the next time youre over in Dallas Joyce and Gigis is just north of the arts district, Nazca is just north of NorthPark mall check them out. If they succeed, maybe well get more Peruvian places around here, and that cant be a bad thing.