There's a good chance you've never tried Peruvian food or even heard much about it.
That could be about to change.
Largely unknown until recently, the food from this South American nation of rich history and wide-ranging cultural influences has been securing a foothold throughout North America, led by Peruvian super-chef Gastón Acurio. His quest for worldwide expansion includes a hip restaurant in San Francisco called La Mar.
Is Peru the next big thing in food? I hope so. If what they're doing at La Huaca in Roseville is any indication, it stands a chance of gaining an enthusiastic new audience.
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Peruvian food is eclectic. It's accessible. It embraces multiple cultures and influences from ancient Aztecs to contemporary and cosmopolitan Lima. It's both familiar and exotic. And when it's done well, it can be both hearty and elegant.
It seems like an arms-wide-open, anything-goes assortment of flavors, ingredients and techniques.
Peruvian food is seafood. It's steak, lamb, chicken and pork. It's even pasta. And it's all kinds of mashed potatoes – really fancy, complex, sculptural mashed potatoes that include an array of extras such as chicken, fish, vegetables and, yes, even octopus.
By scanning the menu at La Huaca, you'll learn Peruvians practically invented ceviche. They add layers of flavors with peppers, with spices, with cooking methods that take many hours. And more than anything? In Peru, they love to eat.
To take in this kind of experience, you need not go farther than a surprisingly eclectic Roseville shopping center that also has an excellent craft beer pub called Final Gravity.
Since ceviche is so central to the Peruvian experience with food, it's the best way to get a sense of the flavors used to showcase the fish. The flavors are more refined than they are loud or jarring. Ceviche begins with the basic idea that the acidity in lime juice essentially cooks the fish and firms the flesh. For safety and taste, only the freshest fish will do.
During our visits to La Huaca, we found the fish to be exceptionally fresh, with that crisp, clean favor up front on the palate that's a telltale sign that it is at its best. There are five ceviches on the menu, all sizable portions suitable for sharing for $14.95. My favorites were the clasico, a basic white fish presentation that demonstrates this classical – and rather magical – technique with seafood; and the de Rocoto, a ceviche covered in a creamy and mildly spicy rocoto sauce.
Adventurous diners open to sharing and exploring will do best by ordering a sampler and comparing the subtle differences by choosing three of five available ceviches for $29.90.
The sampler is also the best introduction to the wonderful appetizer known as causas. If you grew up loving plain ol' mashed potatoes only to realize their limitations, this could become your new favorite comfort food. These causas are all built around mashed potatoes – perfectly mashed, creamy-yellow potatoes given a splash of lime juice and a dose of a yellow chili pepper called aji Amarillo that packs more of a gentle citrusy note than a fiery wallop.
All of the causas were made with precision and plated with a touch of artistry, especially when arranged side by side in the four-causas sampler. It's hard to pick a favorite. The causas with finely cut octopus drizzled with olive oil was the edgiest offering; the limena and its suggestion of chicken salad, the most familiar; and the fried chicken in escabeche sauce the one packed with the most flavor.
The only issue regarding precision was the temperature. These causas are served chilled, but during two of my three visits they seemed refrigerator cold – too cold – and that seemed to blunt some of the flavors.
While ceviches and causas are the mainstay appetizers here, we couldn't resist the chicharron de cerdo – ample pieces of pork that have been boiled and then fried and set atop large dollops of delicious sweet potato purée. While the pork was tender and had ample flavor, it may have been a tad overcooked and dry.
As you scan the menu for the main dishes, whether seafood or meat (or vegetarian), you may find yourself asking, "What country is this again?" That's because Peruvian cooking has been an evolution replete with ancient traditions, local ingredients and wonderful infusions of Spanish and Italian inspirations, among others.
The lamb shanks baked slowly for hours just might resemble what you'd see at a charming French bistro, only this dish stands apart with subtle seasonings and a serving of beans and rice.
The fettuccine and steak, served side by side on the plate, will remind you of an Italian eatery, though the steak is covered in a dark, thick sauce that touches on what could only be Latin American flavors – a bit of spicy heat, a bit of sweetness and an underpinning of flavor notes earthy and bitter. This steak was very tender, as you'd expect; and because filet mignon can be subtle to the point of blandness, it's the perfect cut of beef to host this lively sauce.
Then there's the lomo saltado, which might look like something you'd find in an upscale American diner or, if you've got "steak frites" in mind, at another bistro in the French countryside. It's filet mignon cooked in Pisco liquor served with french fries, albeit fries that could have been cooked longer and, if we want them to mimic the best bistro offerings, fried not once but twice. For the fussy eater not yet willing to commit to full-bore exotic food, this might be a good choice.
We also delved into the equally impressive seafood side of the menu and were especially impressed with the calamari, firm but tender and universally difficult to get right. Our favorite was the hearty comfort dish called arroz del Pacifico Sur, in which we encountered perfectly prepared calamari and plump shrimp "flamed" in that Pisco liquor and served with rice and aji sauce.
The jalea de Mariscos might remind you of American pub food, in which the calamari and shrimp are breaded in corn flour, fried and served next to fried yucca.
On and on it goes, right down to the desserts – that are familiar but just different enough to leave you entertained. Our favorite was the spongy soaked cake, tres leches de Lucuma y Pisco. Though if you really want to encounter the Peruvian sweet tooth, try the sampler (once again), four desserts lined up side by side and suitable for sharing.
There is so much to take in with the food, but the service was largely polished and attentive. The room itself is pleasingly decorated but could use more warmth and charm as the restaurant grows and prospers. On two of the three visits, we were treated to live music.
9213 Sierra College Blvd. Suite 140, Roseville
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Beverage options: Beer and wine license
Vegetarian friendly: Yes
Noise level: Moderate. Some nights there is live music.
Overall 3 stars (out of four stars)
The food here will be a revelation for those not familiar with Peruvian cuisine. There's a reason La Huaca is catching on with savvy Roseville diners. The food is exotic, accessible, hearty and elegant, with plenty of options, and the experience of dining here is thoroughly enjoyable.
Food 3 stars
Start with the ceviche, a Peruvian staple, and if you can't decide which one, get the sampler. Same goes for the causas, engaging appetizers based on yellow mashed potatoes presented in various ways with different ingredients. The main courses are also wide-ranging – plenty of seafood and meat dishes, several vegetarian options and always lots of pleasing flavors. The menu also offers wine-pairing suggestions with each dish, especially helpful for new diners who can't predict what seasonings work with which wines.
Service 3 stars
Very friendly and casual, though the servers know the menu and can explain the cooking and flavors in each dish.
Ambiance 2 1/2 stars
With such a warm and inviting menu, the décor in the restaurant doesn't quite match up with the food. It's just a little sterile feeling. More warmth, a few more personal touches, and more of a Peruvian feel to the room will help as the restaurant matures. Live music on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights starts at 7 and is a great touch.
Value 3 stars
The ceviches are $14.95 and are suitable for two to share. The causas made with mashed potatoes are $7.95 to $9.95. Seafood main courses run from $16.95 to $22.95, and meat dishes are $16.95 to $26.95. Dinner for two can range from $50 to $100, though the portion size, quality ingredients and cooking techniques make it all well worth it.
Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @blarob.