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They asked if I spoke Spanish when I first walked into Los Cabos II, the beautiful Peruvian restaurant-slash-social club hidden behind the ugly facade at 15th and Champa streets. And I do, sort of. Mostly kitchen Spanish, which -- if you cut out all the extraneous cursing and references to dick size, and concentrate on not calling everyone a little bitch or motherfucker -- is a lot like touristy restaurant Spanish, so I said "Sí, sí, poquito español" and hoped for the best. As long as the pretty waitress and I kept our relationship limited to talking about food, I figured I'd be okay. I could read the menu (which was written in a comforting mishmash of English and Spanish) and understood that bistek encebollado meant beef cooked with onions, confidently presumed that ordering tallarín verde would bring me noodles and something green (spaghetti, in this case, dressed in basil and pesto sauce), and knew I could say pollo without making it sound like that game with the ponies and silly hats.
1525 Champa St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
Papa a la huancaina: $6.50
Fish aguadito: $8.50
Aji de gallina: $9.50
Lomo saltado: $10.50
Chupe de camarones: $10.50
Paella Valenciana: $26
Arroz chaufa: $6-$14.50
The waitress smiled with relief, then rattled off a minute or two of delicately accented Spanish of which I caught maybe every fifth or tenth word. I grinned, looked her in the eye, and waited for the punctuation. This is a trick I learned from dealing with my mother. Every time she starts in talking about 401(k)s or variable-rate mortgages or other grownup things, it's like she's suddenly picked up conversational Mandarin. I'll nod, say "Uh-huh, uh-huh" and pretend I understand her, but really I'm thinking about boxing or cartoons or pie. Eventually, she talks herself out.
Eventually, the waitress did the same thing. And though I was pretty sure she hadn't been calling me a little bitch or discussing the size of my dick, neither had she been talking about the food. So I just nodded my head happily, agreeing with whatever it was she'd said, then pointed to the menu as if to ask, "Okay if I order now?" And did.
For all I know, I could be married to that waitress now. Or I might have consented to let her use my credit card to finance a new car. Or maybe she was just talking about soccer, which -- from my limited experience with the culture of Peru -- seems to be all these people care about other than llamas and food. While I waited for mine, I absently watched the soccer games playing on three TVs and wondered what the management would say if I tried to ride the stuffed llama standing at the end of the bar. And I thought about what I would've said to the waitress had I paid a little more attention in high school Spanish class or tried harder to learn the native tongue of the hundreds of Mexican line cooks and dishwashers and busboys and rotisseurs I'd worked with over the years. It would've gone something like this:
"Pretty waitress, I have a question for you. I understand that Peruvians are a noble people with a culture and a history stretching back to time immemorial. I have watched several Travel Channel specials on your delightful country and find Peru to be a hauntingly lovely land, stretching from the soaring heights of the Andean plateaus down to the Pacific coast. I know that the people of this endlessly beguiling realm can lay claim to unbroken centuries of civilization, which, in my world, means that there must also be an equally fascinating culinary tradition that exists in the hearts of the public. And even though my mother was once bitten by a llama at the zoo, please understand that I mean no disrespect to those no doubt august and venerable kitchen customs when I ask: What the fuck is up with this food?"
Descriptions of Peruvian food had drawn me to Los Cabos -- talk of Peruvian-Cantonese fusion and grilled meats mixed up with fried rice and potatoes, Greek cheeses, Indian spices, Spanish preparations and Italian pastas, promises of double-starched plates and South American flan and fresh seafood and some acute culinary weirdness. And as it turned out, the food was as delicious as I'd anticipated -- and twice as bizarre.
My first course, papa a la huancaina, consisted of thick slices of boiled potato and half a hard-boiled egg in a smooth, lemon-yellow sauce made of creamed feta and turmeric. It tasted like a backyard-picnic potato salad served at the Greek embassy in Calcutta, like an experimental cold hors d'oeuvre concocted out of fine-dining leftovers, and I loved it. I didn't understand it -- what unusual cultural storm would throw Peruvian, Greek and Indian foods together on the same plate? -- but I appreciated that its preparation showed the unmistakable stamp of balance, restraint and forethought that all native foods (no matter how unusual) seem to have. Someone's grandmother ate feta, turmeric and potatoes, and probably his grandmother's grandmother, too.
By the time the chupe de camarones arrived, I was the only customer in the dining room -- one lonely guero at a table in the middle of the floor -- and most of the staff were gathered in the back eating dinner, watching soccer, occasionally watching me. It was uncomfortable, but not so much so that I lost my appetite. When she'd brought my Inca Kola, the waitress had asked if this was my first time at Los Cabos. I'd said yes and muttered something about wandering by, being curious, whatever. But now I knew that I'd come for the chupe, a huge bowl of Peruvian shrimp chowder in a thin milk broth slicked with red-pepper oil, rich with shelled shrimp and whole, head-on shrimp, all legs and feelers and sweet, delicate meat like baby lobsters, as well as rice, diced potatoes, streamers of egg white, slivered onion, dense garlic, smoky Hungarian paprika and some other stuff that I wouldn't have been able to identify even with a field guide to Peruvian fauna and access to a forensics lab. I ate everything: the green stuff that tasted like anise and oregano, the little legs that looked like they'd been pulled off something that ate Toledo in a monster movie. The chowder was amazing -- pure, totally alien, wonderfully delicious.
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