Cafe Society

Come to Papas

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.

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.

The only thing I didn't like about my meal was the syrupy Inca Kola. But for whatever reason, the waitress hadn't let me order beer. I think she said they were out, but who knows? Maybe she saw the look in my eye and knew that if I had three or four, I'd try to ride the llama. Riding the llama is not allowed at Los Cabos. There's a sign to that effect, which leads me to believe that it's been tried before.

On a return trip, I tried the aji de gallina (shredded chicken and potatoes in a delicious, sweet, curry-colored sauce thickened with parmesan cheese), the parihuela (Peruvian white wine and laurel bouillabaisse, heavy on the tentacles), the immigrant paella Valenciana and onion-dressed ceviche mixto, served with half a potato and swimming in a lime-and-cilantro broth fresh as a slap in the face. With every dish, I got another lesson in the culinary history of Peru.

I've cooked some weird menus in my time. Back in the days when I was just off the leash and flush with someone else's cash, I created nightmares of cross-cultural hilarity -- Viet-Mexican in New Mexico, Caribbean-French (not so weird these days) in New York, Irish farmhouse in central Florida (because there's nothing like eating boiled bacon and potatoes in the hundred-degree heat). But even at my strangest, even if I were drunk, high on crack, just back from two weeks in the Andes by way of China, tooled up on a full sheet of yellow sunshine blotter and suffering from malarial fevers, there's no way I could have created a board of fare half this peculiar.

It wasn't fusion: Fusion cuisine implies the purposeful mashing together of two disparate styles -- ingredients from one, technique from another, or the native preparations of two wholly separate food cultures placed in relief on the same plate. Rather, this was a cuisine of amalgamation, of synthesis and absorption so freaky it could only come from real situations, not the imagination of some chef. So I decided to hit the history books.

I learned that Peru is a lot like Belgium or the Caribbean islands in their layered history of invasion and assimilation, a lot like Vietnam in its penchant for borrowing from the cultures that have occupied it. Spanish conquistadors who came with their tomatoes and saffron and paella pans shaped early Peruvian cuisine -- their own having already been shaped by Arab and Moorish flavors. Explorers brought spices from India. Italian cartographers and sailors saw potatoes there for the first time, as well as aji chiles and corn. They took this bounty back to their home country, leaving behind the notion of pasta along with garlic and oregano. Because of the slave trade, Peruvian cookery took on aspects of African tastes and historic Creole -- which used to mean white Europeans born in the Indies, Central or South America, not guys like Emeril, who were born in New Jersey and moved to New Orleans. (I also discovered that they eat guinea pigs in the highlands of Peru, and was a little pissed that there were none offered on Los Cabos's menu. I've never tried guinea pig.)

In more recent times -- say, the last several hundred years -- successive waves of Chinese and Japanese immigrants further influenced Peruvian cooking, which explained (at least somewhat) Los Cabos's giant plates of arroz chaufa -- fried rice with chicken, beef or seafood, studded with scallions, clove and onion -- and the lomo saltado, essentially a beef stir-fry with onions, bell peppers and whole quarters of juicy concasse tomatoes served over rice. It was also served over french fries, and I have no idea where that came from. Nor have I figured out that Greek feta thing -- but since feta iwas originally a goat's-milk cheese and Peru has a lot of goats, maybe the creamed feta was just standing in for some sort of unrecognizable Peruvian goat cheese. Had anyone ever thought of milking a llama?

There's another explanation for the Cantonese slant to Los Cabos's menu. In 1997, Francesa Reese opened the third incarnation of Los Cabos in a space around the corner at 1512 Curtis Street, the former home of the Ocean Palace restaurant, keeping the cooks who'd been working the line there and serving a two-way menu -- half Peruvian, half Cantonese. Last year, she moved her restaurant to its current, less capacious and more comfortable spot (it's the third Los Cabos II, and Reese's fourth address overall). The straight-up Chinese beef and broccoli and lemon chicken dishes didn't make the trip, but the memory of such Asiana lingers. The tallarín saltado is advertised as Peruvian beef lo mein. The aguadito is chicken or fish in a cilantro-rice broth.

This is how menus get made sometimes, in the same way that culinary traditions are built, piece by piece and immigrant by immigrant -- a slow accretion of flavor and understanding and ingredients. The menu at Los Cabos doesn't move in a straight line or walk through a rational temporal progression from potatoes and guinea pigs to paella to curry to spaghetti to beef lo mein. Rather, it's a wild jumble of a dozen influences all rubbing up against each other in unusual ways. It works the way history does, telling its story in a series of unexpected collisions and crossed inspirations. And with each successive visit, I've come to understand just how much it has to say.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan