Peruvian food is an interesting and delicious mixture of indigenous cuisine combined with influences from the Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Chinese and West Africans who settled there. At the family-run Inka Cantina in Fountain Valley, you will find a menu featuring the operators' own traditional family recipes from the Andes and the northern coast of Peru.
As you enter this pleasant little strip-mall restaurant, the owner greets you warmly as if you were family. His daughter was our waitress, and she was new on the job. He joked that we should be kind to her, but no need, she was quite perfect.
The décor reflects Spanish influences with wrought-iron sconces and fixtures. Some rather kitschy large paintings of Peru line one wall, while clay figurines fill niches on the other side of the room. A TV set, high in one corner, features scenic photos of the country.
Our first appetizer also reflected a Spanish influence, in that it was a version of an empanada. Three come in an order and you can choose from chicken, spinach or beef, or you can get a selection with all three, which we did. They were the best we had ever tasted!
The little pillows had the lightest, thinnest crust, perfectly fried, and each filling was better than the last. One was shredded beef, one was sautéed spinach with some soft cheese, and the last was tender and juicy chicken. All were perfectly seasoned and accompanied by a light and spicy lime dipping sauce for a final touch of heat.
Our second appetizer was the tiradito de pescado, representing the merger of Peru and Japan. Raw fish, tilapia in this case, was thinly sliced and marinated in aji Amarilo (yellow chili), garlic and cilantro. The dish was finished with a bit of salad and nuggets of Peruvian corn (choclo). The fish was very fresh-tasting, and the light sauce had a pleasant kick. Any sushi bar would have been proud to serve it.
Picante de mariscos was rather like a curry. Tilapia, shrimp, calamari and cubed potatoes came in a yellow Peruvian chili sauce with a touch of cilantro. The plate was really a platter, and the seafood was swimming in a generous amount of sauce. There was also an Incan pyramid of rice resting in one corner that we mixed into the sauce, which was somewhat spicy and had good flavor from a complex seasoning mixture. The only problem was that the calamari strips were a bit rubbery.
The other entrée we had was Chela's chicken, described as "Mom's Oriental touch." It was our least favorite. The breast meat of chicken was rather dry and the sauce was uninteresting despite the fact that it was a black bean sauce with ginger, onions, peppers and cucumbers. We've never tasted a warm sauce with big chunks of cucumber in it, but surprisingly, they added a very distinct cucumber flavor. It was a bit odd.
We noticed a number of diners who were eating some very tempting-looking dishes featuring spaghetti. These are in a category called tallarin saltado and can be ordered with chicken, beef, seafood or vegetables all mingled with peppers, onions and cabbage. Next time.
Two of the desserts feature lucuma ice cream. Lucuma is a Peruvian fruit that is often dried and made into a powder. It's a low glycemic sweetener that has many nutrients. It also has a lovely and subtle maple-like taste. We really enjoyed it. We also tried their flan. It was a dense kind, more like the Mexican variety. We loved the flan itself, but the very sweet sauce with which it came was overpowering, so we just ate around it.
This is a very good neighborhood restaurant with a warm and welcoming atmosphere. We would come back just for the empanadas.
TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at email@example.com.
Where: 18279 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley
When: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday
Appetizers: $6.45 to $16.95
Entrées: $9.45 to $17.95
Desserts: $2.95 to $7.50
By the glass: $6 to $8.30
Corkage fee: $9
Information: (714) 965-4600 or http://www.inkacantina.comCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun