ARLINGTON There are officially zero excuses left for never having tried Peruvian food.
Peru Gourmet has called north Arlington home for just over a year now, so it’s past time for delicacies like ají de gallina, papa rellena, lomo saltado and, yes, even cau cau, Peruvian fare’s answer to Mexican menudo, to have made their way onto your dining radar.
Don’t use Tex-Mex or even traditional Mexican food as your starting point for picturing the perfect Peruvian feast, save one dish: ceviche. The icy Humboldt Current that flows through the Pacific Ocean just off Peru’s coast supports one of the most bountiful sources of seafood, and Peru Gourmet’s menu reflects it.
Appetizers and entrees are divided between seafood options and dishes criollos, which are basically Peruvian comfort foods. It all makes Peruvian food, and a night at Peru Gourmet, a study in culinary juxtaposition: Hot sits next to cold, acidic meets starchy, robust flavors intermingle with the delicate.
Starting with ceviche is always a good idea, but it’s a can’t-miss at Peru Gourmet. The acid of the citrus juice “cooks” either the tilapia chunks (ceviche de pescado, $17) or the octopus, shrimp and scallops (ceviche mixto, $20) and imbues it with a sweet taste and chewy texture offset by red onion and choclo, a white Andean corn with dime-sized kernels.
The citrus-juice mixture, spiced with rocoto and topped with shaved red onions, is also available as a stand-alone appetizer called leche de tigre, and served in a glass along with aides choclo and corn nuts. If its perceived benefits as both a hangover cure and an aphrodisiac could be scientifically confirmed, it might be the single most useful app in either of the Americas.
From the criollo section, try a papa rellena ($12), which turns a lightly fried potato into a croquette housing for a bit of lightly seasoned ground beef, onions, black olives, raisins and egg. The potato itself is omnipresent across the criollo section of the menu, but is also in the mix in the seafood section.
That’s no surprise, as over 3,800 kinds of potatoes are indigenous to Peru, though at Peru Gourmet, they all appeared to be russets. That in itself doesn’t warrant any complaint.
What may, though, is the service, depending on your luck of the waitstaff draw. Drinks went without refills and questions went unanswered until a knowledgeable and helpful member of the management team took over our table on a recent visit, an issue that’s easier to overlook if the bigger point is charting new culinary ground.
While appetizer portions skew slightly to the dainty side, entree portions are no joke at Peru Gourmet. The pescado a lo macho has a deep-fried tilapia fillet hiding underneath a seafood mix, sliced potatoes and a spicy sauce accompanied by a deceptively large pile of white rice.
The piqueo criollo ($25) offers a little of everything good about inland Peruvian cuisine. The ají de gallina, though not much to look at with a hard-boiled egg slice resting atop a rich brown broth of roughly gravy-level thickness, hides some of the best flavor and most tender chicken on the menu. Half a bowl is a meal, but the plate comes with three other Peruvian delights.
While arroz con pollo ($16 on its own) is straightforward enough, a sufficiently juicy drumstick aboard a boat of brown rice with vegetables, the other two delicacies at least take some getting used to. The cau cau is a tripe stew that avoids a tough, rubbery texture as much as the cut can, but is very strong — an acquired taste for anyone who already likes menudo or wants to branch out at the dinner table.
The papa a la huancaína is simpler and much more colorful than anything else on the sampler: three slices of potato sit atop a bed of lettuce and are covered in a sauce made from a combination of primarily amarillo chiles and queso fresco, served cold over the warm spuds. While that may come as a shock to the taste buds initially, it actually works.
Appreciating Peruvian food, and Peru Gourmet, its Arlington representative, is all about expectations meeting new flavors. If you can keep from comparing it to your favorite Mexican food joint, you may have just found a new favorite option from even farther south of the border.