Pan pipe music, tarnished brass tumis and fuzzy little llama dolls are standard fare at Peruvian restaurants in the U.S., but donde está el wine list?
Look! A tarnished tumi! (No restaurants were dissed in the captioning of this photo. This tumi lives in Casa de Señorita Vino)
Here’s a summary of my wine experience at Peruvian restaurants over the past couple of decades:
SERVER: Can I get you anything to drink?
ME: Do you have a wine list?
SERVER: There’s red and white.
ME: Yes, the Peruvian flag is elegant in its simplicity. And I ADORE that little vicuña on the crest!
SERVER: Mujer, you could use a pisco sour.
ME: Actually, I’d like a glass of wine. Do you have any Sauvignon Blanc?
SERVER: No. There’s just red or white.
ME: About that pisco sour…
So now you know why I’m blogging and not writing for Letterman. The good news is that this scary scenario is starting to fade. More and more Southern California Peruvian restaurants are adding wine lists, and it’s not just the fancy novo-andino joints with the minimalist decor, hipster bar scene and ear-splitting decibel level.
The wine list at Casa Inka features Malbecs and New Zealand Pinot Noirs, among other choices.
Case in point: Last night I met up with the familia at Casa Inka in Fountain Valley, Calif. (and no, this is not a sponsored post. Casa Inka, if you’re reading this, de nada. Maybe we could get a papa rellena on the house next time we’re there?). We were seeing my brother off before he headed back east after coming home for the holidays.
Located in a nondescript Orange County strip mall, Casa Inka stands out for its Jimmy-Buffet-esque facade: A glass-enclosed bamboo loft housing a couple of stuffed parrots and faux jungle flora. Inside, the decor is a blend of Peruvian kitsch–grinning llamas, serranita dolls, and a looming, oversized photo of Machu Picchu)–sprinkled with some artistic photos of Lima’s trendier neighborhoods and the city of Cusco.
Casa Inka’s facade stands out in an otherwise ordinary strip mall.
On the menu are popular dishes you’d see at most Peruvian eateries, and–holy cau-cau!–a new wine list!
Here’s a sampling of what we ordered and the wines we paired them with:
Anticuchos are served with a side of chimichurri sauce. Yummy!
Authentic anticuchos are skewered morsels of marinated beef heart. I paired these with the Ampakama Malbec 2009. The wine’s bold fruit contrasted nicely with the saltiness of the marinade.
Yuca a la huancaína: Fried cassava in a spicy cheese sauce
Yuca, or cassava, is popular throughout Latin America. At Casa Inka, it’s prepared in the huancaína style, smothered in a rich sauce of fresh cheese and ají amarillo, served with slices of hard-boiled egg and black olives. The zingy acidity of the Rata Sauvignon Blanc 2011 from New Zealand was a perfect match for this creamy dish.
Arroz con pollo, a cilantro lover’s dream.
Señor Jim ordered his standby dish, arroz con pollo, with his standby wine, Sauvignon Blanc. The New Zealand Rata’s grassy notes complement the cilantro in this traditional chicken dish. The wine list features the Rata Pinot Noir 2008, which also works.
Lomo saltado appears on every Peruvian restaurant menu in the galaxy.
Ask my brother how he judges the quality of a Peruvian restaurant, and he’ll answer in two words: Lomo saltado. The classic Peruvian stir-fry pairs beautifully with Chile’s Torreón de Paredes Carmenere 2009, a red wine with elegant tannins [NOTE: The wine list spells the name as "Torreón Parpois," but since I actually fact-check my material, I found it as Torreón de Paredes, so that's what I'm sticking with].
Tacu-tacu, a dish you won’t see on too many U.S. Peruvian menus.
This, my friends, is what you want to eat before you set out to hike the Inca Trail. Otherwise, you’ll gain about 10 pounds approximately 30 minutes after you scrape the last remnants from your plate. Tacu-tacu consists of stir-fried beans and rice topped with a steak and an egg over-easy, with a little bit of fried plantain for the heft–I mean heck of it. One of the classic pairing rules is to match the weight of your meal with the weight of your wine. A robust Zin, California’s Dancing Bull Zinfandel 2009, is the ideal choice.
The Machu Picchu of alfajores towers.
A South American version of a dessert from Moorish Spain, the alfajor is a shortbread and dulce de leche sandwich sprinkled with powdered sugar. Damn, I think my thighs just grew an inch after writing that. Here’s where I channel my inner Señor Jim and pair this with an espresso. Oh, and I cannot tell a lie, so I confess I don’t remember whether there were dessert wines on the wine list. It’s probably because I was too busy chismeando with my dad (NOTE TO NON-SPANISH-SPEAKING READERS: “Chismear” is to gossip).
My brother offers up a mini-alfajor.
Wait–I’m not finished! I’m pushing 900 words here, but no one ever said Peruvians were succinct. I dedicate this post to my super-fantástico brother, whose visits to California are always much too short. Nino darling, may the road be paved with lomo saltado, and be wary of strangers bearing cans of peanut brittle. Besos, P.
Casa Inka, 8610 Warner Ave., Fountain Valley, CA. (714) 847-7555. Open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner.