The Road Best Traveled
By Nancy Powell
I will never say anything bad about a place that leaves its doors open for weary travelers—actually, customers who come an hour too late to enjoy the Peruvian steak and potatoes. Or rather, customers like me who mistakenly depend on Yelp for operating hours rather than a simple confirming phone call. Yet when I show up at the door unannounced, I receive a warm welcome despite the lights dimming, the place vacated save for Victor “Tito” Fuentes, half-owner with his brother Guido, in conversation with family friend Bernie, a commercial real estate broker by day, novice cook by night. In fact, it is Bernie who graciously offers to whip up some “comida de casa” for this hungry traveler.
I can imagine that when the diners fill this house that is shared by a Chinese buffet, they are entreated to kindness incarnate. Guido himself, in collared shirt and slacks, patiently walks about explaining the virtues of Peruvian cuisine in this 20-table restaurant, outfitted in simple white vinyl tablecloths, vases of silk flowers and table-side candles with large banners as signs and little else to distinguish it from its big brother next door. The menu selection at the Peruvian Room is short and sweet—a collection of ceviches, saltados, tallarin and chaufa (fried rice), and according to Guido, it’s the salsa that makes the cuisine.
I imagine most diners feasting on Peruvian Room’s delicious preparation of lomo saltado that Asian-infused (also known as chifa) dish of sirloin strips sautéed with red onions, parsley and tomatoes in a delicate sauce and served alongside rice and French fries. I can smell hints of the sea in the freshly made ceviche, the lime-juice marinated sea bass filet so firm and yielding in my mouth, the tangy lime dressing drinkable by the cupful.
Instead, on this evening after they’ve closed, I allow myself to get familiar with Tito’s background and how he and Guido started this tiny enclave 45 days ago, a long way from their native Arequipa. After enjoying a few kernels of fried corn whose salty crunch and lightness reminds me of popped corn and a refreshing blast of Inka Cola, Bernie brings me a beautifully-rendered plate of a flaky and spicy white fish filet, marinated in huacatay, rocoto and yellow peppers, and butterflied shrimps. It’s served with slices of tomatoes, red onions and red bell peppers, and the salsa explodes with a pleasing fury with each bite. Bernie adds a mound of rice on the side, garnished with sprinkles of cilantro. Tito decides to christen the dish pescado jugo.
As I ooh and ahh with each succeeding bite, Bernie and Guido are quick to remind me that what this off-menu surprise I am eating is for the hungry traveler, something the staff would cook for themselves when the dinner service has concluded and the tables cleared of the nightly debris. What I taste is The Peruvian Room’s impeccable dedication to good, quality ingredients; comfort food that would please the Aztecan gods, comfort food to warm and salve a weary traveler’s soul.
Coronans should thank the Incan gods for this unsung treasure.
The Peruvian Room, 591 N. McKinley Street, Suite 100B, Corona, (951) 402-6999; www.peruvianroom.com. Tues-Sun 11:30am-9pm. V.