Until recently, Peruvian restaurants barely registered on the local radar screen. Anyone interested in exploring the cuisine had to drive to Lucky Chicken in Clayton until two summers ago, when the opening of Machu Picchu in North Raleigh doubled the number of choices.
Both were - still are - worthy representatives of the genre. But apart from a handful of counter service eateries specializing in rotisserie-roasted chicken, they were the only options.
Actually, there was a third blip on the screen, but it went dark so quickly that few ever noticed it. At least in part because of its off-the-beaten-path location in Southeast Raleigh, tucked away in the back corner of a strip mall between a wig shop and a police substation, El Rincon Peruano barely lasted a year.
Among the few who managed to find it were Peruvian natives Carlos and Jenny Morales. When the opportunity presented itself to buy the restaurant, they didn’t let the location deter them.
Nor should it deter you from seeking out Inka, which the couple opened in the space in September 2011. The tiny 36-seat dining room, modestly decorated with folk art on the walls and lace curtains in the windows, is considerably more inviting than the nondescript building’s exterior would lead you to expect. And the food is proof that good things do indeed come in small packages.
The menu offers a broad survey of Peruvian cuisine, though it isn’t unusual for one or more dishes to be unavailable on a given night. Their absence is especially noticeable on the appetizer list, where three of the six choices are offered only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.
Go with the flow, though, and you’ll find that papa a la Huancaina - slices of boiled potato blanketed in a creamy yellow sauce tinged with Peruvian aji chiles - is ample consolation when the oversize, banana-leaf-steamed Peruvian tamale is not available. If you’re lucky, choros a la chalaca will be in the offing: plump green lip mussels, marinated in a bright medley of lime, red onion, tomato and cilantro - will be in the offing.
On weekends, the starter list expands to include ocopa (similar to papa a la huancaina but with a pale green sauce whose flavor is evocative of mint and basil); papa rellena (a mashed-potato croquette with a savory ground beef filling); and causa (an attractive layered dish of yellow potatoes and chicken salad).
You’ll no doubt have noticed that potatoes are a recurring theme here. Rest assured that the variety of presentations lives up to Peru’s reputation as the birthplace of cultivated potatoes, and as a modern-day society whose diet boasts nearly 200 varieties of the staple root vegetable.
Potatoes take the form of French fries in the signature Peruvian dish lomo saltado, where they are topped with a sautéed medley of beef strips, tomatoes and onions in a sauce whose soy accent is evidence of historic Asian influence on the culture.
You’ll find Inka’s creditable rendition of lomo saltado among the entrees, along with other classics such as arroz chaufa (a Peruvian riff on Chinese fried rice) and aji de gallina, a delightful stew of shredded chicken breast in a peanut-thickened sauce punctuated with the dish’s namesake chiles.
Jalea de mariscos serves up a bounty of fish and shellfish, deep-fried in a crunchy batter, atop a bed of fried yuca. Salsa criolla, a salad of red onion and tomato in a citrus-bright dressing, supplies refreshing counterpoint to all the crunchy goodness.
Peru is justifiably famous for its ceviche, and Inka doesn’t disappoint. The menu offers three variations on the theme - four, if you count leche de tigre, a bracing cocktail of diced fish marinated in fish broth, lime juice and milk spangled with red onion and cilantro.
Ceviches - shrimp, fish (tilapia or swai) or mixto (fish, shrimp, calamari and octopus) are all “cooked” in the traditional marinade of lime juice and Andean rocoto chiles (you’ll be asked whether you prefer mild, medium or spicy). All come with potato, sweet potato, Peruvian corn and canchas (like Corn Nuts, only better; you’ll also be served a complimentary dish of warm canchas at the beginning of the meal).
Both times I visited Inka, only two of the four desserts listed on the menu were available. Fortunately, both - flan and leche asada (think rice pudding without the rice) - were well worth the calories.
According to the national media - from Forbes magazine to the Food Channel - Peruvian cuisine is the next big culinary trend. Based on the tantalizing sampling that Inka and others have given the Triangle so far, I say bring it on.
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