Llamas are to Peru what longhorn cattle are to Texas (except that Peruvians don't drive around with llama skulls mounted on the front of their Cadillacs). When you see a llama, whether in a painting of the animals grazing in the highlands above Machu Picchu or a near-life-size stuffed model staring you down at the front counter, you know you're either in a shop that peddles Andean wool garments or a Peruvian restaurant. In this case, it's Los Cabos II on Champa Street downtown.
Los Cabos II may not have been Denver's first Peruvian restaurant (owner Francesca Ruiz previously operated an unnumbered Los Cabos), but it is definitely the longest-running, having taken over a dark corner grotto previously occupied by a Chinese restaurant in 1997. The menu still channels some of that Chinese influence, though, by way of Peru's long culinary history; while purely Chinese dishes are not available, the menu describes certain dishes as having originated with Chinese nationals who immigrated to Peru in the 1800s. Lomo saltado is one of those, and while the flavors — and base of French fries — don't strike American palates as particularly Chinese, the stir-fry technique and soy-sauce marinated beef are telltale signs.
And while lomo saltado is a popular item at Los Cabos, there are plenty of other options that combine indigenous ingredients with those that arrived over the centuries from Europe, Asia and Africa. For example, ceviche mixto, while a little heavy with coarsely chopped onion, offers a good balance of shrimp, calamari and nuggets of fish (sea bass or snapper, perhaps), all bathed in a zesty marinade of lime and aji amarillo chiles.
Los Cabos also has a few seafood soup options. A shrimp chowder called chupe de camarones hides a satisfying quantity of shrimp beneath its creamy orange surface. The broth is thinner than a New England chowder and carries more of a tangy quality from tomatoes and chiles; those and any other vegetables that comprise the broth are cooked down and blended into the soup so that the only elements that add texture, other than the shrimp, are a scattering of green peas. It's a rich chowder with a deep, oceany seafood stock as the base, and its overall complexity encompasses the flavors of Spain and Italy as well as Latin America.
Our foursome sampled a few other Peruvian classics, including a plate of papas a la Huancaina (a cold potato salad in a mustard-yellow cream sauce), an order of aji gallina that paired shredded chicken with a curry-like sauce, and another rust-colored seafood soup with flavors reminiscent of cioppino. Dessert was an order of miniature alfajores: sugar-dusted sandwich cookies filled with dulce de leche, presented in a clear plastic to-go container, which didn't exactly invite lingering, but made for an easy late-night snack back home.
Los Cabos isn't quite as polished as the much newer Pisco Sour in Lone Tree; its faded charm is more in the style of the now-closed Pisco Sour original on East Colfax Avenue, and the dim lighting and loungy atmosphere invite multiple rounds of drinks. While the place was never completely empty on our visit, there were never more than a few tables filled, either. Downtown tourists trickled in, perhaps lured by brochures in their hotel lobbies; the restaurant would certainly present an odd impression to first-time visitors to our city. But for longtime residents, Los Cabos holds onto a part of Denver's past when restaurant competition wasn't quite so fierce and trendy neighborhoods didn't draw young, boisterous crowds.
The entryway to Los Cabos is only a few doors down Champa from the 16th Street Mall, also quickly becoming a timeworn holdover in a rapidly changing city. There are far more dining choices now than in 1997, even if there are still only a handful of Peruvian eateries in the metro area. While many diners seem more inclined to head to hip, modern eateries where hints of South American cuisine make appearances alongside other international influences and locavore ingredients, modernist culinary mashups have nothing on Peru, where fusion isn't an overblown fashion but rather an everyday occurrence in home cooking, street food and high-end kitchens. Los Cabos and its watchful llama are content to welcome those looking for a reprieve from the trendy spots for a quieter but no less unique experience.