Carla Meyer

Dining Review: Machu Picchu, where weird meets wonderful

I’m drawn to weird. Good weird. I’m about to tell you about one of the weirdest restaurants in town.

Let’s start with the multiple personalities.

Waffle King’s (I cannot explain that apostrophe “s”) is a somewhat standard American-style breakfast eatery, complete with massive menu and multiple varieties of waffles. The place smells like bacon and sausage and the sweet aroma of hot waffles crisping up on the iron. It has a drop ceiling and fluorescent lighting. It’s on a well-traveled stretch of Fulton Avenue. The food is fine. The joint is busy. The prices are right, and the coffee is strong.

If that’s all there was, you wouldn’t be reading about it here because it is neither weird nor exciting.

At lunch and dinner, however, things get interesting. That’s when the waffles, stuffed omelets and biscuits and gravy give way to ceviche, to lomo saltado and arroz con pollo. The later it gets, the more exotic the aromas and flavors and combinations, all of which just might leave you scratching your head.

Behold Machu Picchu, a Peruvian restaurant. That’s right, with a nary a change in the lighting or sprucing up of the decor, good ol’ all-American Waffle King’s turns into something truly special. And good weird.

Folks thought Jamie Martin was off his rocker when he decided in 2007 to reinvent his business, which was serving strictly American-style food.

“I tried making it (Peruvian food), and the people, they liked it,” he told me.

Isn’t that what business is all about?

Martin, who is of Mexican descent, had worked for two years with a Peruvian cook and was intrigued by the Peruvian approach to food, which amounts to an eclectic fusion of styles. It’s big on seafood. There are potatoes everywhere. Peruvians inexplicably will pair steak with food you might not expect. And they adore ceviche.

Martin has only visited Peru once, but he has the cooking down. His style is hearty, if not rustic, and the cooking is precise, with plenty of flavors and a fine display of balance. The ceviche, raw fish “cooked” in citrus, is one of the most popular dishes. Our excellent server at dinner one night asked if we would like it a tad spicy and, when we gave the nod, brought us a wonderfully tender, toothsome and refreshing plate of fish, served with sliced red onion, and suitable for sharing.

Another popular dish here is the lomo saltado. It’s a beef dish featuring thin strips of sautéed meat served with red onions and white rice along with, yes, french fries. The thin sauce is, indeed, salty but very tasty – a burst of flavor that will make you think of a Chinese stir fry. In fact, the origins of this dish are Chinese. While it may seem odd to have two major starches, rice and potatoes, in one dish, it is normal in Peru.

Potatoes are a major component of Peruvian cuisine. When I reviewed La Huaca, a more upscale Peruvian restaurant in Roseville, I told you about the very refined, if not elegant, servings of causas, which are a way of showcasing mashed potatoes.

At Machu Picchu, which has more of a blue-collar vibe, the preparation of the causas are nonetheless refined, and there is an element of complexity to these dishes that makes them a pleasure to eat. The two causa appetizers – one with chicken, the other with shrimp – are so arduous to prepare that they are only available on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, when the restaurant is at its busiest.

Both are worth trying. The causa de pollo is layered alternately with mashed potatoes and chicken salad, and is topped with boiled egg and olives. The causa de camaron is similar, except with shrimp. The creamy smoothness of the potato and the meatiness of the chicken or shrimp makes for a wonderful eating experience.

Seafood is a big feature of the menu, and you’ll find it prepared in various ways. Jalea is basically fish that has been breaded and fried. If you’re an adventurous eater, your best bet is the jalea mixta, which, as the name suggests, offers a nice variety of seafood, including shrimp, squid, scallops and mussels. What does the seasoning in the breading taste like? Think KFC. Yes, the peppery note on the palate made me think of the Colonel’s original recipe. For a more focused version, try the jalea pescado, which is breaded and fried white fish. Both dishes are served with Peruvian corn, which is basically a giant version of American corn.

Another tasty, rustic seafood dish is the arroz con Mariscos, which is a take on the Spanish classic, arroz con pollo. But instead of chicken, we get a variety of seafood combined with rice that has been cooked in a wine sauce. This is a tasty, hearty dish, and it smells terrific.

You’ll find seafood in the soups, too. These are big bowls intended as a meal or for sharing.

There is also plenty of quirkiness, if not eccentricity, in Peruvian cooking. For instance, there is a dish at Machu Picchu with a steak sitting next to a serving of spaghetti. It’s called “spaghettis saltados con carne,” a simple dish of thin steak (we got ours medium rare) with onions and tomatoes served with spaghetti. Is it a little odd? Yes. Is it good in that truck-stop diner kind of way? Yes.

Another diner-style offering that I really like is the “bistec a lo pobre.” On the menu, it is irresistibly listed as a “chef’s special dish.” I’m guessing the chef is not worried about his cholesterol, his waistline or his arteries. There’s a sirloin steak. There’s sausage, too. Then there’s an egg (I got mine over-medium, at the suggestion of our server), along with rice, french fries and fried bananas. Yes, it’s good weird.

Desserts at Machu Picchu are low-key and may not be for everyone, especially if you’re seeking something rich and sweet. The two offerings available during our visits were both on the dry side, as they are meant to be. The “mil hojas” is a multi-layered puff pastry filled with a blend of condensed milk, sugar and vanilla called arequipe. The alfajor is a treat popular in Spain and much of South America. It’s essentially two large, round cookies that resemble shortbread with a chocolate filling.

The drinks are limited to a few Peruvian beers and wine, including an acceptable cabernet sauvignon that sells for $4.25 a glass and pairs decently with the lomo saltado. The wine may overwhelm the seafood dishes and clash with the hot and spicy offerings. The beer, while nothing exceptional, is smooth and has enough flavor to work well with most dishes on the menu.

At Machu Picchu, it’s the Peruvian menu – and the quirky juxtaposition with the American breakfast menu – that really makes this place special. While many feel it is important for the restaurant community to embrace “farm to fork” as a way of cooking and eating, let’s not lose sight of the eccentrics and misfits in our midst. They’re what give our town a serving of personality and, in this case, a touch of good weirdness.