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Purple Haze 

With one swig of Frugos' Peruvian Purple Corn Drink and its vaguely starchy cinnamon taste, I knew the rest of the meal would have an unexpected flavor. The 65-seat El Loco Pollo Peruvian Restaurant, which opened last November, claims to be the only Peruvian restaurant in Charlotte, which technically is true, although some Peruvian dishes are served at La Cascada on South Boulevard. Co-owners Ashley Chang and Mickey Cheng are natives of Hong Kong and Taiwan respectively. Chang arrived in Charlotte after a five year stint as the owner of a Chinese restaurant on Long Island, NY. Cheng came to Charlotte via a stay in Indianapolis. Why would Asians open a Peruvian restaurant in Charlotte? Charlotte is something of an entrepreneurial melting pot: this is a city where a Vietnamese native owns a Spanish restaurant, a Latino owns a French restaurant, and a native Frenchman owns an American restaurant. Cheng says that the idea for the restaurant came from his friend and now manager, William Irraba, a native of Peru. "When I lived in Indianapolis we would go to his house and his mother made the best food. He suggested we open a Peruvian restaurant." Chang also says that a large portion of the Peruvian population is Asian. She adds, "Many of the dishes are similar to Asian dishes. Cerviche is like sashimi and the Peruvians use noodles in many dishes." One such dish, for example, is Tallarin Saltado de Pollo, a dish of spaghetti, sauteed chicken, onions, tomatoes, and cilantro. In the kitchen, though, all hands are Peruvian. Head cook Justo Donaire has 20 years experience cooking his native cuisine. Corn and potatoes are staples of the Peruvian diet, and aji amarillo, a yellow chile, is commonly used. 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. Choclo Entero is an appetizer of Peruvian giant white corn, which reminds one of a 1950's B movie of the aftermath of a nuclear disaster. The kernels are gigantic and nearly explode from the cob. This giant corn was so special that in ancient times only Inca kings and noblemen were allowed to consume it. Cheng gets his product frozen from Miami and as is true of all corn, freezing toughens the kernels. The corn is served with huancaina, a creamy sauce of cheese, oil, cream and aji amarillo, a sort of South American aioli without the garlic. This sauce, which is a closely guarded family secret recipe, is used on potatoes, corn, and as a general dipping sauce. Two other sauces may be side orders: Salsa Aji, a green spicy sauce, and Salsa Criolla, a mix of marinated diced red onions and tomatoes in lemon juice. As lively as the food is, the dining room is sparse and functional, with only minimal take-out place charm. A side wall has a mural of Charlotte's skyline while the opposite wall has a few Peruvian items. Tabletops are bare, utensils are plastic, and one television, tuned to a Spanish station, blares from a corner. But the personable Chang circulates throughout the room answering questions about Peruvian dishes and bringing an occasional complimentary dish. One entree portion is enough for a family. The Jalea Mixta, one of the house specialties, is a large platter of sweetly crusted shrimp, small pieces of sea bass, octopus, tender squid, mussels fried in the shell, giant corn kernels, and yucca fingers. With the exception of the chewy mussels and corn kernels that tasted petrified, the other items -- particularly the yucca -- were first rate. Dunk these in the wasabi green colored chili sauce for a kick. Another dish to try is the smoky, densely aromatic rotisserie chicken with enough spice and herbs to stave off ordinary flavors. To finish, the chef's special creamy Flan, though rather ordinary, has a calming effect on the palate. Entrees range in price from $7.25 to $13.99 and rotisserie chicken is served in quarter, half, and whole portions with sides and salsas from $4.99 to $11.99. Both domestic and Peruvian beers are offered, as are Inka Gold cola and Peruvian fruit juices. Peruvian cuisine may not have the complexity of other cuisines, yet there is a flavor dance of the salsas, a freshness to the cerviche, a crispness to fried items, and an earthiness of the potatoes and corn. Dishes at La Loco Pollo are offered in large, well-priced portions, and present a new culinary landscape to explore. El Loco Pollo Peruvian Restaurant 3124 Eastway Drive, #520. 704-568-3600. Hours: 11am until 10:30pm Monday through Thursday; 11am until 11pm Friday and Saturday; Sunday noon until 10pm. Visa, MC.

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