Pisco Sour Peruvian restaurant on East Colfax was a cross between a dive bar, a sports bar for soccer fans, a nightclub and an eatery featuring some of Denver's more unusual cuisine. While it was run-down and lost in time, the shabby remains of a once-swanky establishment held a kind of charm — worn into the burgundy faux-leather booths — that just can't be replicated. Unfortunately, owner Renato Castillo shut the place down earlier this year, but the food lives on in Lone Tree, where a second Pisco Sour occupies a space with considerably less personality than the original — but also without the intimidation factor that quite probably kept away as many customers as it lured.
Residents of Lone Tree and visitors to the area around Park Meadows mall have no shortage of dining options, even if most of those are corporate in nature. But even without the big chains, Pisco Sour has plenty of competition, sharing the block with Khazana (specializing in the cuisine of south India), John Holly's Asian Bistro and a sushi bar across the street. The parking lots were all full on a Saturday night, indicating that suburbanites are just as curious about foods that aren't served smothered in ranch dressing or sided with giant piles of fries as their urban counterparts.
A sparkling shopping center in the land of HOAs and SUVs may actually be a better setting than the far grungier Colfax in which to enjoy a plate of ceviche made up of raw seafood marinated in a variety of tangy and creamy sauces. Ceviche is one of the national dishes of Peru, a country that boasts a longer Pacific coastline than California. Pisco Sour offers seven styles (if you include the tiraditos, which are similar to ceviche, but with the fish cut into long strips rather than small chunks). In Peruvian ceviche, you'll find potato, corn, creamy sauces and a wide range of flavors from various chiles. The mixto is a good sampler, with shrimp, squid and sea bass awash in a pale yellow sauce with a fiery kick and a nice tang from lime juice. Fried strips of tortilla add crunch to the appetizer that's otherwise served without chips.
In addition to fish, Peruvians have a long history with the potato, which shows in the dense, tender and creamy wedges of golden potato served cold in the papas a la Huancaina, a kind of potato salad smothered in a rich yellow sauce made from queso fresco (Pisco Sour's menu says feta cheese), aji amarillo (the ubiquitous, yellow Peruvian chile), cream and oil. Our server explained that there are also cracker crumbs blended into the sauce to add body, but you'd never know it from the velvety smooth texture. And true to potato salad form, the dish also comes with hard-boiled egg. Other than a little buzz on the tongue from the aji amarillo, papas a la Huancaina would be right at home at a Midwestern family picnic.
Peru's vast geography encompasses coastline, desert, high mountains and rain forest, so the food is as varied as the climate and topography. While Pisco Sour's menu doesn't divide its dishes by region, a warming and hearty stew of soft-cooked beans, braised beef and an herbal sauce seems far removed from the bright, tropical ceviche. There's pork belly cooked into the beans — a yellow variety already higher in fat content than standard pintos or kidneys — and the resulting richness is addictive, made more so by the greenish-brown sauce redolent with cooked-down cilantro so that the herb's sharp, pungent nature becomes muted and earthy. A mound of white rice will help scour the plate of every last drop of the homey mixture.
Sweet empanadas are a good option for dessert, unless you'd prefer to delve into the unusual and odd mazamorra morada, a jiggly dessert made from purple corn. There's no actual corn left in the dish when it's served (the corn is boiled and strained out, leaving only its deep burgundy color), unless you count the corn starch thickener that gives the dessert its distinct texture — like warm Jell-o just before it sets. Chunks of pineapple and a generous dose of cinnamon fight for attention amid the purple slurry; each spoonful is like eating jam from the jar, only not as sweet. It's not a dessert I would order again — especially with fruit-filled pastries as an option — but it would be fun for kids, if only for the color and texture.
No trip to Pisco Sour would be complete without the namesake cocktail, made with pisco (a Peruvian distilled spirit), egg white and lime juice. The bar uses plenty of egg white, resulting in a sweet and tangy foam that stays in the glass long after the rest of the drink has been drained. Cocktails went down well in the dim and sultry Pisco Sour on Colfax, but Lone Tree, despite its stretches of stucco and acres of perfectly mowed lawns, will do for a pisco sour or two, too.
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In Ethniche, Mark Antonation explores a different cuisine every month. In June, he's traveling through Peru — without leaving metro Denver.