By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
On a weekend afternoon, I sat outside on Cebiche's big patio so I could eat while watching the Mexican wedding at the church across the street — young men in tuxedoes, beautiful girls in bright yellow dresses, a bride beaming from the center of an explosion of virginal white and pearlescent silk. The girls' dresses were the same color as my papas a la huancaina, served cold in an addictive and delicious yellow aji pepper sauce that tasted like curry and cream. The potatoes were done just right. I saved the slice of hard-boiled egg for last as I always do — like a special treat — and then dug into a plate of lomo saltado, done here like it is everywhere else: strips of beef stir-fried with onions, tomatoes, garlic and soy, served with a thin, brown gravy and french fries. The rice was undercooked, the beef perfect. Bored by excess and availability, I watched the wedding party move inside the church as the last of the children in their tiny suits and fancy dresses were corralled, cleaned up and hustled through the door.
As at those Cuban sandwich places in Tampa and those barbecue shacks in North Carolina, the trick at a Peruvian restaurant is seeking out differences, not being lulled by sameness. On my next visit, I ate empanadas that were delicious and steamy, each pastry shell filled with spiced beef, onions, salsa criolla and a quarter of a hard-boiled egg. And then I ordered ceviche, figuring that if a place is named after one particular dish, that dish is probably the best thing on the menu.
While Cebiche's ceviche wasn't the best thing, it was very good. The classic white fish version was a rough and rustic presentation, with planks of fish flesh marinated in lime and garlic and ginger mounded atop sliced, boiled potatoes; the mixto done the same way, but with shrimp, scallops and squid. The marinade was strong and made me pucker while the fish was still an inch from my lips. I pushed the red onion and cilantro garnish to the side and picked up fish with my fingers — realizing too late that the ideal way to eat this ceviche was to heap fish on a bit of cold potato and take it in one bite. In so many places, ceviche is done like some kind of luxury offering — manna from the food gods, exemplary of the chef's transitive brilliance. But that's crap. Ceviche is street food, best served (and eaten) ice-cold from a plastic cup in the sun. Cebiche may have dispensed with the traveler in favor of a plain plate and lettuce garnish, but this was ceviche prepared and presented in the right spirit, showing not that the cook is good, but that fish steeped in lime and ginger is excellent.
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
After two plates of ceviche and two beers, I decided I wanted something sweet. The only dessert available that afternoon was picarones, and although I'd never heard of them before, my waitress said they were doughnuts, kinda, and that was enough for me.
Picarones are really fritters, fried dough shot through with little pieces of sweet, earthy pumpkin flesh, served wet with mile de chancaca, which is like maple syrup without the maple — made of pure, raw, glorious sugar. The picarones come four to a plate. For a normal person, half of one fritter would be plenty, and a whole one enough to instigate a diabetic coma. I, of course, ate three, and then had to do several laps of the block just to burn off the sugar high.
I went back on a slow weekday afternoon — really just looking for another plate of picarones, but too embarrassed to have nothing but doughnuts in sugar sauce for lunch. So I ordered the adobo Arequipeño, because I'd never seen it anywhere else and wanted to know what the people of Arequipa do with pork.
Turns out they marinate it in vinegar and spices, and then they boil it in some kind of magical red chile sauce. The pork was fatty and tender, slow-simmered, and tasted like lamb — mostly because the sauce was so reminiscent of Indian lamb vindaloo, only less brutally hot; like rogan josh, but thinner, deeper — more subtly, addictively sweet. It was like a pork-and-red-chile stew, delicious over its bed of fluffy white rice, only compromised by the use (again) of frozen vegetables. Iraola later told me that he'd eaten this dish when he spent time in Arequipa, and he would be going back to Peru soon to work with a chef and brush up on technique. When he comes back, Cebiche's menu will likely change, and the frozen vegetables will be gone. The adobo Arequipeño will stay.
I was still licking my lips when my plate of picarones arrived. As I tipped back the last of my Inca Kola and ran my finger through the puddle of chancaca, I wasn't bored. I wasn't spoiled. And I wasn't thinking of lomo saltado at all.