Cafe Society

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It isn't every day that you find a restaurant billing itself as "a Peruvian seafood and Chinese cuisine salsa and karaoke nightclub."

But that's exactly how Francesca Reese describes her latest Los Cabos II, the third in a series of Los Cabos eateries with which she's been involved. The other two--one of which was also called Los Cabos II--have closed, but Reese retained Humberto and Chris Ruiz, the Peruvian brother-and-sister team who cooked at the original Los Cabos. Although that was a purely Peruvian eatery, this Los Cabos II occupies the space that once housed a Chinese restaurant, Ocean Palace, and Reese kept three of the Palace's cooks on.

A good thing, too: When Los Cabos II opened four months ago, Ocean Palace regulars would drop by and request their favorite dishes. At the same time, the Chinese fare picked up so many new fans that the restaurant will probably keep offering it. The daily specials alone are reason enough to return. Each day Los Cabos II features a different Chinese dish for $2.35, calling it a "light lunch." But the serving of chicken with almond that I got one Monday was much larger than the "light" tag had led me to expect, and Tuesday's beef with broccoli was as good as I've had in any Chinese eatery.

The menu also lists a few "Peruvian Cantonese" dishes, a description only slightly less bizarre than, say, "Tex-Mex African." (Talk about fusion!) But no matter how you labeled it, the house-special fried rice, arroz chaufa ($7.50), was incredible. A mound of rice--large enough to feed four people--had been enhanced with scallions, parsley and cilantro (the Spanish influence) and dotted with soft, chewy pieces of pork (our choice; you can also get chicken or beef). The pescado a vapor ($9.50) paired delicate steamed fish with a soy sauce augmented with onion and parsley. And although the lemon chicken ($8.95) was listed under "Chinese," it, too, displayed Peruvian influences. The chicken had been roasted rather than stir-fried, and the tart sauce lacked the sweetness that Chinese cooks so often add.

Still, it's Los Cabos II's purely Peruvian fare that's the real catch. The restaurant's name refers to the trawling nets that pull fish out of the water; since Peru is one of the Andean coastal countries, seafood is a big part of the cooking there. So are potatoes: Peru was responsible for cultivating the sweet potato and many other types, since they're just about the only things that grow well in the country's desert-like plains. Hard-boiled eggs are another staple, as is a sauce that's a mixture of cheese and milk, stirred with lard (probably olive oil here) and flavored with the ubiquitous aji, or chile.

For the aji de gallina ($7.50), nuts were added to that sauce, giving it a thick consistency and a richness that made it taste like cream had been used rather than milk. The dish is a Creole creation--referring to the original definition of Creole, which means a person of European parentage born in the West Indies, Central America or tropical South America--that combines Spanish and Indian ingredients. Los Cabos II's version featured large, tender shreds of chicken, potatoes, rice, a hard-boiled egg--and that delectable sauce. Another cheese sauce, this time without nuts, made the boiled potatoes in the side of papa la huancaina ($5.50) rich and satisfying.

Then our ship really came in. The shrimp cocktail ($6.50) brought top-quality camarones swimming in a chilled, well-balanced mix of tomato juice, onions, cilantro and slips of avocado. The liquid was so good that we kept slurping it up long after the shrimp were gone. More shrimp arrived in the sopa siete mares ($8.50), or "seven seas soup," whose deeply flavored broth of seafood juices, tomatoes and onions also held octopus, sea bass and squid. This liquid, too, was so good that we couldn't stop spooning it up.

Although all of Latin America has a take on ceviche, the raw-fish dish "cooked" in citric acid, Peru is usually credited with having invented it. And Los Cabos II has clearly perfected it: The ceviche mixto ($9.50) was outstanding. The key was copious amounts of aji, which, along with cilantro leaves, studded the salad-like assemblage of squid, scallops, shrimp, octopus and potato, all heaped on a bed of lettuce and covered with the crucial red onion rings. Fiery, sour and bracingly fresh, a bite of ceviche was like splashing ice-cold water on your face.

Onions also played an important role in the choros a la chalaca ($8.50), enormous green-lip mussels bathed in lime juice and flecked with red chile flakes, and the bistek encebollado ($9), thin sheets of sirloin steak covered with crisp-edged sauteed onions and diced tomatoes. The top-grade steak was tender enough to cut with a fork, and there were enough oily, beefy onion strands to accompany each bite of meat.

Considering the high quality of the ingredients in most of our dishes, it was a surprise to come across hot dogs in the otherwise well-done paella Valenciana ($25 for two people). But we forgot the weiners as we dug into big chunks of hot, hot chorizo and pieces of chicken, octopus and shrimp. Besides, the dish included whole strands of real saffron, the price of which has become unbelievably prohibitive. Our other surprise was the pollo a la brasa ($8.25), half a chicken roasted with lemon and pepper: The skin was on the rubbery side, and the meat beneath was strangely dry. Since roasted chicken is a Peruvian specialty, we were disappointed by Los Cabos II's blah bird.

But the kitchen made a comeback with the flan ($2.50). This was quintessential Peru, a thicker custard than you find in the rest of Latin America, with Swiss cheese-sized holes and an almost chewy texture. The not-overly-sweet caramel sauce was just right for moistening the cakelike dessert.

So many restaurants that try to take on two cuisines fail miserably (for that matter, so do many restaurants that try to take on just one), but Los Cabos II manages to pull off both Chinese and Peruvian. And it does so with class, even if the cavernous dining room seems like an odd place to find food this good. As for the "salsa and karaoke nightclub" part, the restaurant offers live salsa music on Friday and Saturday nights, with karaoke added on Fridays. But Los Cabos II's lengthy billing fails to mention one more unusual amenity:

It has the only free Peruvian-Chinese happy-hour buffet in town.

Los Cabos II, 1512 Curtis Street, 571-0007. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner

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