Incas to Rise Again Via Gastronomy
The last of the Incans disappeared hundreds of years ago to the long-lost city of Machu Picchu. No one has any idea how they built the city atop the Andes without the detection of Cortez. The UFO set likes to think it was built by aliens thanks to its pitch-perfect architecture and mortar-free construction. But after getting to know Peruvian cuisine, it’s clear to see this culture has a long history of getting miraculous results with what they have at their disposal.
This time last year, I was stalking a little spot called El Pollon de OKC on SW 44th St. It was the dream of Peruvians Raul Ramos, Juan Castro and Niel Zambrano. What a great spot to eat, if not to cook.
One year later, El Pollon has closed but much to our benefit. Ramos just reopened a Peruvian restaurant in the same space El Pollon occupied, Castro helped William Chunga open a new Peruvian/Mexican Mamaveca restaurant in Edmond, and Zambrano opened Inca Trail on the city’s north side last month. Meanwhile, fellow Peruvian Jorge Zarate’s Latin American restaurant in Edmond continues to grow and thrive.
Not only does that mean the ceviche culture is growing, it also means great Peruvian dishes like Aji de Gallina, Lomo Saltado, Pollo a la Brasa, and Bistek a la Pobre are more available than ever before.
I haven’t yet been to Ramos’ new spot, but Zambrano’s Inca Trail, 10848-A N May Ave., has made my short list for dining after only three visits. The first time I made it over, my old amigo and renowned chickenhawk Jesse Olivarez joined me. We shared Papas a la Huancaina and were supposed to trade out on the Aji de Gallina I ordered and the half Pollo a la Brasa he ordered. The last part didn’t happen.
The creamy Papa a la Huancaina carried the requisite surprising zing, to cover simply prepared potatoes dressed with hard-boiled eggs and kalamata olives. As much as I enjoy Papas a la Huancaina, I now have it stuck in my head that it’s really a deconstruction of what promises to be the finest potato salad ever conceived. Thus, until Niel, Juan, Jorge or Raul prepare it that way one time, it’s going to be difficult for me to look past that potential. That said, this is a basic Peruvian dish that is an excellent entry point for those new to the cuisine. The aji amarillos (yellow chiles) that influence the sauce are just spicy enough to let you know they’re about, but they’re bridled by a combination of milk and feta cheese and help deliver a well-balanced result. The Aji de Gallina is chunks of chicken covered in the same sauce over white rice. A nice dish, but probably the wrong thing to order with Papas a la Huancaina if you’re looking for variety. I can’t remember how small the nibble of Pollo a la Brasa was because as I previously mentioned, Jesse is the type of chickenhawk that would’ve taken Foghorn Leghorn to the fryer before the old bird could’ve gotten to his third “I say.”
On my second visit, I tried the Tiradito ceviche with an order of green rice. Loved them both. Tiradito is a simple, authentic dish. Fish, citrus and aji amarillo puree. Again, this is a great entry to the Peruvian point of view. The fish is cut long and thin, influenced by the well-established Japanese culture in Peru. The green rice is heavily flavored with cilantro, and fans of that herb will love this take.
On my third trip to Inca Trail, I finally got a decent taste of the Pollo a la Brasa. I was there with a number of local food bloggers, so we ordered a good number of the entrees and ate family style.
After one bite of the rotisserie chicken, we all immediately regretted not ordering four chickens and calling it a day. Put simply: Wow.
Zambrano told me the chicken is marinated for two days and the skin seasoned heavily before he subjects it to his charcoal-burning roaster. It’s served with a salad that included lettuce, tomato and avocado slices. Each succulent bite was a bridge to the next. And when it was gone only sorrow and freshly cleaned bones remained. (Getting hungry just thinking about it.)
We also tried the Ceviche de Mixto, a combination of the whitefish, calamari, shrimp, and octopus marinated in lime and rocoto chiles. Served with a hunk of sweet potato plus the large-kernel corn called choclos and the roasted kernels called cachitas, which deliver the promise CornNuts in a bag never could. This style of ceviche is the new standard. You can find it at Mamaveca and Zarate’s as well as Inca Trail. Each are extremely similar. I found Mamaveca the spiciest.
At Zarate’s, owner Jorge Zarate doesn’t cut the fish until it’s ordered, so you either allow for 20 to 25 minutes for preparation of call ahead to let him know you’ll be ordering it. The fish in his ceviche is thick and hearty.
Inca Trail’s ceviche lands somewhere in between the two, a little milder than Mamavecca and not quite as hearty as Zarate’s. All three are excellent.
We also sampled the Tacu Tacu at Inca Trail, which amounts to the Peruvian play on red beans and rice (though the beans are white)topped with a steak, which is topped with fried plantain slices. This also amounts to a solid choice for a meal. This is simple stuff that would reach out to even the white-breadiest palate.
Same goes for the Arroz con Pollo. Every country where Spanish is spoken has a version of this dish. This is simple, homestyle eating. Two braised chicken legs embedded in a stir-fried rice reminiscent of what you’d find in a Chinese restaurant. That’s not accidental, as Chinese food is extremely popular in Peru. Inca Trail offers chaufas on the menu, this is the standard Peruvian-style Chinese stir fry you’ll also find on the menu at Mamaveca.
We also tried the Lomo Saltado, which is the dish the uninitiated will most likely be familiar. Lomo has been on Mexican restaurant menus in Oklahoma City for years, namely Nino’s and the old Monterrey Jack’s. The reason? Peruvians have been working in Mexican kitchens for years. The Chinese influence is again obvious: beef slices stir fried with sliced onions and sweet peppers mixed with fresh tomatoes and served with both steamed rice and French fries. Potatoes are omnipresent in Peruvian cuisine as the country is the worlds’ literal mecca for the root. The country boast thousands of varieties and is home to the International Potato Center.
Chef Niel also bestowed a Tamal de Peruano to sample. The most-beyond-reason masa wrapped around chicken and was wrapped in banana leaf. Topped with and onion-tomato mix, this is the way tamales should taste. If you like tamales even a little, this will exceed expectations.
Maybe the biggest surprise at Inca Trail was the dessert. Two kinds of flan were served. A basic version and then a second that adds coconut flakes. Both were excellent, but add the coconut if you even remotely enjoy a Mounds bar. The flan was rich, thick and flawless.
Inca Trail also has two helados (ice creams), neither of which are flavored with a fruit you’re likely to have heard of: chirimoya and lucuma. Chirimoya, also called custard apples, impart a banana-lite flavor.
Inca Trail also offers two Peruvian beverages. Chicha Morada is made by boiling purple corn, rendering off the resulting broth and adding sugar. Maracuya is a passion fruit punch. Chicha Morada imparts an earthy flavor, while Maracuya has a grapefruity edge without making you pucker. Either are an interesting and educational choice.
Have you been to Inca Trail or any of the other Peruvian restaurants? Let me know what you thought.