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Peruvian cuisine is much more than potatoes

Think Peru. There's Macha Picchu, the Incas, llamas, exiled ex-president Alberto Fujimori, and Arequipa, Charlotte's sister city. But Peruvian cuisine?"Peruvian food is famous in most of the world," says restaurateur Aldo Sevillano, a native of Lima, Peru, and owner of the 150-seat Inka Grill, Peruvian and Latin American Cuisine, which opened two months ago. Then he adds, "You know, the potato is from Peru."

The potato, which flourishes in Peru's high altitudes, has been a crop since prehistoric times. More than 100 varieties are grown in Peru, although the Peruvian blue (or purple) potato is the most common in Charlotte's markets. But Peruvian cuisine is more than mere potatoes. Seafood, tropical fruit and roots, delicate spices and Aji amarillo, a yellow chile, are center stage in Peruvian cuisine. Dishes are a fusion of native, European, and Asian techniques.

Before the Spanish ransacked Peru, the potato, along with corn, squash, yucca, beans, and sweet potatoes, were the basic ingredients. Banana, papayas, plums, avocados, and giant pineapples also were favored. After the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors, the Peruvian diet changed with the introduction of chickens, cows, rabbits, wheat, onions, asparagus, lettuce, cilantro, limes, oranges, apples, and sugar cane. The next significant change occurred in the 1800s. In a 25-year span, from 1849 to 1874, over 100,000 Chinese immigrants arrived in Peru. Hundreds of thousands have arrived since from all over Asia. Today thousands of Chifas, Chinese restaurants, exist throughout Peru, and in greater concentrations than found elsewhere in South American countries.

Inka Grill is located on Albemarle Road in a spot once occupied by Grand Havana (before that restaurant moved down the street). The dining areas are functional and welcoming, filled with Peruvian art and tapestries. Sevillano runs an efficient place, which is no surprise given his experience. He holds a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management from a university in Lima and has also studied at CPCC. Sevillano has lived in the Charlotte area for 18 years. He worked for the Radisson Corporation in downtown Charlotte before opening his first restaurant, The Roasting Oven, in Fort Mill 12 years ago. He also owns Grill 2000 in Fort Mill.

For the Inka Grill, Sevillano imported a roasting oven from Peru. "I needed that in order to achieve an original charcoal broil taste," he says.

The menu, with all the usual Peruvian characters, is well over 50 items. These range from rotisserie chicken to Lomo Saltado, Tallarin saltado, and aji de gallina. Dishes are well described in English. The renowned Peruvian appetizer Papa a la Huancaina was a smooth tasting rendering, with cold, sliced boiled potatoes and a soft, ripened, cow milk's Andean cheese (Queso Andino) sauce. Another very good appetizer was the chilled Causa Rellana, a mound of cold mashed potatoes wrapped around a plate-stealing chicken salad. The steamed Tamal, a corn hot pocket, on the other hand was moist, but too pallid even though it was stuffed with chicken. Thankfully, it was teamed with a portion of criolla, a delightful mix of thinly sliced marinated red onions and cilantro.

Inka Grill has 17 seafood items that vary from a fried platter to a Peruvian Paella. Ceviche, or "cooking" via acidic acid of citrus juice, is thought to have originated in Peru or neighboring Ecuador. The seafood ceviche at Inka is vibrant and tender. Plates are served in the traditional fashion with a small yellow corn cob, a halved sweet potato, and fried chancha, giant dried corn kernels. The leftover ceviche broth, which pools on the plate, is called Tiger's Milk and can be added to vodka or Pisco, a Peruvian grape liquor, as a hangover remedy. Another entree was the more mellow Arroz Chaufa, a hefty portion of an understated chicken stir fry.

The national dish from the Incas, Anticuchos de Res, is sliced, marinated, and skewered grilled veal heart. Sevillano, aware of American sensitivities, has opted not to list this dish on the menu, but rather has it listed in Spanish on a table tent.

You can wash these delicacies down with Peruvian beer -- a nice balance with the starch driven menu. Desserts are sweet, but refreshing. The very purple, Mazamorra Morada is a jelled harmonious purple corn mixture studded with bits of plums and pineapples. Picarones is the Peruvian take on funnel cake. Large, thin rings of pumpkin and sweet potato dough are deep fried and then doused with a brown sugar syrup with hints of cinnamon, cloves, and oranges. They may be a bit unwieldy, but worthy of a go.

You can have quite a meal at Inka Grill and leave with your wallet still intact. Entrees range from $6 for Cau-Cau con Arroz to $12 for Chicharron de Mariscos (a fried seafood platter), and all the dishes are passable and sharable. Inka Grill is a great food find that won't get lost in translation.

Eaters' Digest Many readers have called since "Shutting Down," an article about local restaurants which have recently closed. Most called about the apparent closings of SouthEnd's Nirchi's Pizza and Siboney Cuban Restaurant in Tower Place. Both restaurants have won Creative Loafing Awards in the past.

Vittorio's Italian Cuisine, 311 East Boulevard, is closed.

Owner Ed Steedman says that Bijoux Brasserie & Bar, located downtown at 201 N. Tryon Street, is open although they filed for Chapter 11 reorganization April 10. Steedman says, "We expect to emerge in a very short period of time." For reservations, call 704-377-0900.

Rheinland Haus, 2418 Park Road, is offering a free Mother's Day Brunch, on Sunday, May 11, with all donations going to Make-A-Wish Foundation. For more information, call 704-376-3836.

Mama Ricotta's, 601 South Kings Drive, now offers a "Retro" menu, featuring "time-honored Italian comfort food" every Sunday and Monday nights. Call 704-343-0148.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance.

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