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Lomo saltado. Hot empanadas and a sweating bottle of Cristal or Quilmes beer. Chupes de this and chupes de that, a small plate of ceviche classico or ceviche mixto and then, of course, the ubiquitous papas a la huancaina that I love even more than the backyard, church picnic-style potato salad of my youth. For dessert, another beer. No flan, because I have stopped eating flan entirely. When I'm lucky, something sweet and different. Something weird. Something like the picarones — fried pumpkin donuts lying in a shallow puddle of raw sugar-cane syrup — served at Cebiche, Denver's newest Peruvian restaurant.
2257 W. 32nd Ave.
Denver, CO 80211
Region: Northwest Denver
Papas a la huancaina: $5.95
Lomo saltado: $11.95
Arroz chaufa: $11.95
Aji de gallina: $11.95
Adobo Arepiqueña: $11.95
I am spoiled. Most culinary adventurers would be happy to find one Peruvian restaurant in a town this size, but Denver has several, with more coming all the time — joining the ever-expanding lineup of Argentine eateries, of Chinese and Vietnamese and Ethiopian and Thai and everything else under the sun. Early this year, Cebiche opened in the space once occupied by El Chalan, a Peruvian restaurant that pioneered this neighborhood more than a decade ago. The ivy-covered building presses up against a construction-battered stretch of 32nd Avenue. I stopped in the dim, cool room, listened to the fish tank burbling away near the short bar and the hidden speakers dripping Spanish-language pop music, salsa, the occasional folk arrangement of drum and shepherd's pipe, and looked at the menu. I saw lomo saltado. I saw empanadas, chupe, ceviche and papas a la huancaina, and I actually caught myself thinking, "Oh, no. Not this again..."
Like I said: spoiled. Spoiled like a motherfucker.
In Tampa, especially in the old industrial neighborhoods, you can find Cuban sandwiches and coffee on every block, sometimes three or four times in the space of a single block; every Cuban subtly different, all the coffee bitter and strong. In the Carolinas, eating barbecue is like breathing, smoked pork shoulder as ever-present as oxygen. In New Orleans, there are a million places to get etouffé and the quickest way to start a fight is to ask any group of three or more people which etouffé is the best. In upstate New York, come Friday, even the Chinese restaurants put a fish fry on the menu because in upstate New York — particularly in the Italian and Irish neighborhoods — the assumption is that not only is God watching what you eat on Friday, but He's actually right there in the backyard, hiding behind a tree and taking notes.
In Denver, I know of at least four places to get lomo saltado, six or seven that serve the ultimate small-world peasant classic, arroz chaufa, in its peculiarly South American iteration, and about a hundred where I can get ceviche, done every way from two-nights-in-the-hospital bad to sublimely perfect. When I feel a need, I know where to score pisco grape brandy on a Sunday, cold potato cakes after dark on a Tuesday night. All this gastronomic multiculturalism, this overabundance is fantastic. But still, I looked at the menu at Cebiche, with its handful of appetizers and its six entrees, and I wondered only why there wasn't more.
"I see other Peruvian restaurants, and there's so much on their menus. I wanted to focus on each plate. Make each one just right."
That was what Cebiche's owner, Sergio Iraola, told me when I asked. It was deliberate, this small menu, these few focused dishes. The recipes are all authentic, all classically Peruvian, and Iraola should know. His parents are Peruvian. He's lived in Peru himself. He ran another Peruvian restaurant years ago (Sergio's Peruvian Dining in Lakewood) that didn't catch on, then spent years practicing. And now it's paying off. Since Cebiche opened on January 15, Iraola said, everything has been going well, reallywell. And then he laughed, as though maybe he couldn't quite believe it himself.
Peruvian cuisine is a catch-all, a flexible and absorbent canon like American or Indian that, in its full extension, is a melting-pot history of immigration and occupation and acceptance, at points dull, shocking, strange, delicious. It is both pedestrian and exhilarating, sometimes changing from one bite to the next. Cebiche's arroz chaufa, for example, is terrible and tedious — Chinese fried rice touched with sparks of "indigenous Peruvian spice" (salt) and tossed with mixed vegetables (carrots and peas, corn and lima beans), all of them up from frozen. An argument could be made that this is probably the way it's made back home — a dish of leftovers, chicken or beef, some rice, a little of this, a little of that, comfort food from mom's own kitchen — but authenticity does not always equal good eats. The aji de gallina, on the other hand, is a Spanish/Italian/Incan fusion, a Peruvian party food, a dish made to feature the yellow aji pepper that's one of the foundations of South American flavor, like tomato to the Italians or butter to the French. It is spicy at Cebiche but not punishing, soft-edged and mellowed with a parmesan cream sauce that disguises a round complexity which reveals itself only over the course of many bites — a bit of hard-boiled egg here, a little black olive, a stab of chile heat. I was halfway through a plate of it before I realized I liked it, done before I could figure out why.
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