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.
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, really well. 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.
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.
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.
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