When I first moved to Paris, I was insulted by the comments people would make about American food. "You call that cheese?" they'd say, referring to Velveeta, or "What's for dinner tonight, hamburgers?" It didn't matter that I never liked processed cheese — not even melted over macaroni as a kid — or that I didn't cook a single burger when I lived in France. To them, American food boiled down to burgers and bad cheese (as well as weak coffee, Wonder bread, and other items I'd rather forget), and no amount of protesting could change their minds.
In hindsight, though, maybe I shouldn't have been so insulted. After all, they were only doing — albeit with beaucoup condescension — what we all do to some degree, and that's oversimplify. Who isn't guilty of reducing Japanese food to sushi, sashimi and ramen, or German food to brats, sauerkraut and beer? Before you say "not me," ask yourself if you'd be disappointed to join friends at a Japanese or German restaurant and not find glistening raw fish or a cold pilsner on the menu.
See also: Behind the scenes at Taita
That's why the nine-month-old Taita is such a good addition to the Denver dining scene. This contemporary Peruvian restaurant serves all of the fare commonly associated with Peruvian cuisine, plus plenty of other dishes that reflect the diversity of both the country and the background of chef-owner Jose "Pepito" Aparicio. And it does so in a charming, century-old building shorn of coat after coat of paint to reveal exposed brick walls and a soaring timber ceiling. With pumpkin-colored paint, a pisco-sour-pouring bar and live Latin music on Fridays, the space is vibrant and fun — except at lunch, when you might be the only one here. (The lunch menu was recently replaced by the pricier dinner menu, which could explain why.)
If you've eaten Peruvian food before, there's a good chance you had ceviche, the iconic appetizer of raw fish marinated in lime juice to "cook" the flesh. (The citrus actually denatures the proteins, but "cooks" works as shorthand.) Taita's menu devotes a whole section to this refreshing dish, and each variation sounds better than the last. How about the clasico, or the warm (in temperature, not spice level) caliente, or the soy-spiked Japones? With so many options, we turned to the server for advice. Despite uncertainty in other areas — she had to run to the kitchen repeatedly to inquire about ingredients and preparations — she responded without hesitation. "I like the clasico," she said, smiling broadly. We did, too, and not just because we were hungry enough to nibble on the menus by the time the plate arrived some thirty minutes later. (I later learned that Aparicio slices and marinates the fish to order.)
Ceviche is often served like salsa, with diced, marinated fish mixed with chopped tomatoes, garlic and cilantro and served with chips. But the clasico was more like sashimi, with a mound of sliced mahi mahi, an ocean fish, replacing the less authentic but commonly substituted tilapia, and nary a chip in sight. It could've been my main course, because by the time we'd shared that and a tasty quinoa-and-pinto-bean salad, I was ready for dessert. But I was glad I didn't skip my entree, the equally classic lomo saltado, with tender strips of wok-charred filet mignon. A good choice for the seafood-shy on a fish-heavy menu, this two-minute stir-fry — a vestige of the Chinese influx into Peru in the nineteenth century — is proof that sultry flavors don't require hours of stirring or overnight braises. Complementing the soy-smacked beef, onions, tomatoes and fries (yes, they're part of the dish) was a mint-heavy chimichurri drizzled around the plate.
Taita's menu reflects Aparacio's lineage: He's a veteran chef of Italian descent who was born in Lima, spent nearly two decades in Japan, and has now lived in Denver for thirteen years. That's why his aji de gallina — a creamed chicken of sorts, with a sweet yellow pepper sauce rather than béchamel — features an unusual but tasty sprinkling of grated Parmesan. It's also why risotto is made with quinoa, why ravioli snuggle in aji amarillo sauce, and why the Japones ceviche soaks up soy. To some, this culinary license might make Taita seem less Peruvian. But "Peruvian cuisine is different than it was forty years ago," says Aparacio, who hasn't lived in Peru for decades but returns at least once a year. "Peruvians don't just use Inca food. We use food from Africa, China, Japan and Italy and put it all together."
As interesting as this fusion is, I was captivated by traditional dishes long overshadowed stateside by ceviche and pisco sours — dishes such as the chicken-filled tamal criollo, a long rectangle of puréed cooked corn (not masa de harina) steamed in a platter-sized banana leaf, and the sudado de pescado, a necklace of flaky white fish braised in shrimp stock and accented with tomatoes, yellow peppers and onions. And I couldn't resist the papa rellena — similar to shepherd's pie, but with fried mashed potatoes encasing the spiced ground beef — or the causa, another popular potato-based treat. "Summer is not summer in Lima without causa," reads the menu, and I can see why: The cool discs of puréed potatoes topped with avocado and tuna or shrimp must be refreshing on a hot day in the capital.
Unfortunately, the lengthy menu doesn't do as good a job of describing the solterito arequipeno, and neither do servers, whose allegiance lies with the fried mashed potatoes and marinated fish. The refreshing salad, with cubes of queso fresco, fava beans and corn in a bright lime dressing, is a staple at bachelor parties in Peru, and who can resist something with such happy associations? Taken together, these lesser-known dishes tell stories more colorful than any travel guide. And isn't traveling, either by armchair or restaurant chair or airplane, the best way to ensure that we don't insult others by oversimplifying their food to burgers and bad cheese?