Quick quiz: Tell us everything you know about Peru.
You’re thinking South America, right? The Andes. Maybe you’re seeing National Geographic images of Machu Picchu, or Lima, or that lake with the funny name, the name that’s like a verbal goose to grade-schoolers (and professional writers, for that matter)—Lake Titicaca. If you’re a Jeopardy freak, maybe you’re flashing on trivia about the ancient Incas (and if you’re not, maybe you’re just wondering if they’re the dudes who ate each other’s still-beating hearts in the second Indiana Jones flick).
Good. Now, tell us everything you know about Peruvian food.
If you guessed rice and beans, with perhaps a touch of Spanish influence, you’d be playing it safe, and you’d be only fractionally correct. Peruvian cuisine is actually some of the finest and most diverse in the world. And, straight from the Incan Empire to the Inland Empire, we’ve found one helluva Peruvian treat right under our noses: Inka Trails Peruvian Cuisine.
Named for the ancient peoples’ sprawling system of roads and rope bridges, Inka Trails is located in Claremont, on a quiet corner otherwise occupied by tidy strip malls and food joints of the Marie Callendars genre. We visited this little slice of Peruvian heaven on a recent Sunday evening. Inside, we found the cool, dimly-lit space pleasantly full, like a party just warming up. Dark wood trimming accented the walls, which are painted the color of Peruvian hillsides—hazy greens and sun-tinged yellows—and dotted with Peru-inspired art, including colorful tapestries woven from llama fur (the country’s trademark beast of burden), shelves housing Peruvian knick-knacks, and ink drawings and photographs of Machu Picchu and Cuzco, the ancient Incan capital.
After taking in the ambience, we got down to business: the grub. A quick scan of the menu revealed both reasonable prices—appetizers averaging about $8; entrees about $14—and a strikingly diverse selection, ranging from Tallarin Verde con Bistek Apanado (breaded top sirloin over linguini) to Picante de Mariscos (mussels, calamari and shrimp in Peruvian aji sauce) to Parihuela (Peruvian bouillabaisse). Such items reflect the unique diversity of Peruvian cuisine, a diversity made possible by the country’s multiple climates (Peru is home to 84 of the world’s 104 ecosystems), plentiful fishing in the coastal zones, and the rich gastronomic influences of countries such as China, Africa, India and Japan.
Our appetizer—Papa a la Huancaina—was a plateful of halved, skinless potatoes, boiled to soft perfection and served cold in a scrumptious Peruvian cream sauce. Our entrees, Lomo Saltado and Ceviche de Pescado, also featured some spiffy spuds (potatoes are a longstanding staple of the Peruvian diet). Lomo Saltado, a “true Peruvian classic,” is a mountain of lean sirloin strips sautéed with onions and diced tomatoes, tossed with papas fritas (French fries) and served with a generous helping of rice. Next, we tried the Ceviche de Pescado—technically an appetizer, but served in meal-size portions. Chunks of tender, raw sole marinated in lime juice with cilantro, and served with slices of potato, yucca and sweet potato over a bed of lettuce, with a side of cancha (Peruvian corn nuts)—we loved this tangy dish, and found it was complimented perfectly with an icy Cristal, one of a handful of available Peruvian beers.
For dessert, we sampled the popular Inca Kola (which, for the record, is made by Coca-Cola and manufactured in New Jersey), a golden cream soda that tastes a lot like bubblegum. We also tried alfajor, a dessert sandwich comprised of two Peruvian cookies with a slathering of caramel in between—a sweet finish to a dining experience that was as refreshing as a hike in the Andes.
INKA TRAILS, 1077 W. FOOTHILL BLVD., CLAREMONT, (909) 626-4426; WWW.INKATRAILSRESTAURANT.COM. DINNER FOR TWO, $30-$40. LUNCH AND DINNER SIX DAYS; CLOSED MONDAYS.