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March 31, 2008

Rinconcito Peruano

Dominic Armato
UPDATE : Rinconcito Peruano has closed

About six years ago, I took my first and only trip to South America. At least I think so. It's all a blur, really. I'm told we visited Peru, but mostly I remember airplanes. Twelve of them, to be precise, in less than four days. We wanted to accept an offer from some friends to visit a farm, school and free clinic that we were helping to support, and with an absurd travel schedule that year we had to condense the trip into the quickest surgical strike possible. So despite being in the country for less than 72 hours, we went Lima to Tacna to Lima to Piura to Lima -- two flights in, two flights out, and two domestic flights for each leg inside Peru. The fact that we remained basically at the same longitude was a small blessing, but it was still the most exhausting trip I've ever taken, and -- bonus -- the epilogue was the most brutal, gut-wrenching, full body convulsing on the bathroom floor, dear-god-I-think-I-can-taste-my-lower-intestines bout of food poisoning I've ever experienced in my life on the night of our return. I've often said that if a few horrible nights with my head in the porcelain buys me a lifetime of raw eggs, meats and seafood, it's capital well-spent. But I think I earned myself several lifetimes' worth that night. If you need one, let me know.

Dominic Armato
In any case, to say my trip to Peru was under suboptimal circumstances would be a colossal understatement. And yet, the food made a huge impression on me. My experience with South American foods at the time was (and frankly, still is) borderline nil. Having never read about Peruvian, I was expecting some simply seasoned grilled meats, lots of corn, and starch upon starch upon starch. Instead, I was floored by the complexity and sophistication of some of the dishes we sampled. As it turns out, modern Peruvian is a natural fusion cuisine, the diversity of Peru's immigrants creating dishes that are a unique blend of Spanish, Chinese, Italian and Japanese, among others. The food we had was unlike anything I've tasted before or since, and while the details of what we ate were lost in the total whirlwind of the trip, it made a lasting impression. I'm still a novice, but I'm learning.

Dominic Armato
So I was positively tickled to discover that we have a great little family run Peruvian joint a few blocks from our new home. Rinconcito Peruano is just the kind of place you love to have nearby. It's casual, no-frills, easy to fall into, delicious and hearty, and run by some wonderful, welcoming people. I've been dropping by for lunch a lot lately... so much so that Luz, who does front/back of house double duty during the day, has gotten in the habit of slapping the little fella on her hip while she cruises the room taking orders, so I can get a little break to enjoy my lunch. The first thing to hit the table is always a little cup of cancha, kernels of toasted Peruvian corn. It's a nice little munch that demands accompanying refreshment. Given the astounding ubiquity of Inca Kola down in Peru (it's their Coca-Cola and Pepsi all in one, as far as I can determine), it's odd that I didn't try any at the time. So I was pleased to satisfy that curiosity, if not my thirst. The best way I can think to describe Inca Kola is somewhere between cream soda and bubblegum soda, neither of which I find particularly refreshing. What I loved, however, was the chicha morada. Though I understand it's an alcoholic beverage through the rest of South America, the Peruvian version isn't fermented. It's built off a Peruvian purple corn base, and Luz's version includes pineapple juice, lime, cinnamon and chunks of apple (among other items I might not be identifying). It's not at all what I would have expected from a corn-based drink. I've heard some compare it to sangria, but I think that's a lazy and inaccurate description. It's light, refreshing, pleasantly fruity with a slightly tart edge, it has a little body, and it's not overly sweet. I can't imagine a more perfect drink for a hot day.

Dominic Armato
The first dish I tried at Rinconcito Peruano is still one of my favorites. It's rather unusual compared to the ceviches to which I'm accustomed, but I understand it's very typical for a Peruvian ceviche. Believe it or not, there is a big pile of fish under there, and the complication obscuring it belies its simplicity. It's a bare bones marinade that's clean, heavy on the lime and very spicy. Though I neglected to ask what type of fish she uses, it's a firm whitefish of some nature and mine was moist and succulent. The accompanying onions were entirely expected, but the boiled corn and sweet potatoes certainly weren't. And I was surprised to find that they worked. There was a small amount of seaweed of some nature, and the ceviche was sprinkled with some cancha as well, which I particularly enjoyed. The crunch was a fun textural contrast and you don't have to be a tequila drinker to know that salt and lime work together.

Dominic Armato
Pollo alla Brasa seems to exemplify Peruvian cuisine to a lot of people, but as far as I can tell, that's only due to the number of places that specialize in the dish. Though I've only been to a couple of the dedicated chicken joints, Rinconcito Peruano produces a lovely version. I've been told (though not by Luz) that the chicken rotisserie was brought in from Peru. What makes this oven superior to something that could be acquired in the States, I have no idea, but I have a hard time believing you go to that expense without a good reason. In any case, there's no knocking the product, which is moist and tender and intensely flavorful. I don't know what comprises the seasoning, but it's perfect -- assertive enough to make the chicken sing, but not so much that it comes across as anything but a pure roasted chicken dish. Mine arrived with three sauces. The first was, I believe, some manner of commercial ranch dressing which held no interest. I pegged the second as a mayonnaise and mustard mix, which was a nice dip for the chicken even if it wasn't anything particularly noteworthy. The third sauce, however, was dynamite, and perfect for the chicken. Fresh, green and spicy, I'm guessing it was olive oil, cilantro and jalapenos blended together. I was offered either potato fries or yuca fries for my starch, and opted for the latter, which I'd never tried before. The yuca was quite starchy and it lacked a potato's sweetness, but that starch made for an incredibly crisp fry that was really enjoyable from a textural standpoint.

Dominic Armato
Another chicken dish I've enjoyed is the Aji de Gallina. I had to add a little salt to wake it up, (easily done with the shaker on the table), but the end result was a rich, comforting stew that seemed somewhat at odds with descriptions I've read of Aji de Gallina elsewhere. It's a creamy dish of stewed chicken, made with yellow chiles, cheese and ground walnuts, and I've heard it can be quite spicy but I didn't find Luz's version so. Far from aggressively spiced, I found it very mellow and hearty. It also included some olives and sliced hard boiled eggs, and was paired with both boiled potatoes and rice (double starch -- this is still South America). It's not the most exotic dish, but on a cold day I found it tender, warm and comforting.

Dominic Armato
One dish I did remember trying in Peru was lomo saltado, and I rather enjoy Rinconcito's version. It's humble food, but it's a great example of the multifaceted nature of Peruvian cuisine. Marinated sliced steak is stir-fried with onions, tomatoes, and other vegetables, seasoned with wine, vinegar, cilantro and chiles, then served atop french fries and doused with the stir-fry sauce. What makes it interesting is the inclusion of soy sauce, which positions the dish somewhere between Spanish and Chinese. The steak is a chewy cut that's full of flavor, and the potatoes get that gravy fries kind of effect, where the sauce soaks in and turns it into a slightly mushy mess that appeals on a very base, satisfying level. There's rice as well, but here I find it redundant. Rinconcito Peruano isn't open especially late, but if it were, this would be fantastic post-drinking food.

Dominic Armato
A special that isn't on the menu but can frequently be found on the specials board next to the kitchen door (which is easy to miss... be sure you don't) is Cuy Frito, or fried guinea pig. I'm always thrilled to try a new beast, and this was my first crack at guinea pig. As I mentioned while musing a couple of months back, this is a dish that's frequently cited as a prime example of the horrors of international dining which, as far as I'm concerned, is just ugly ethnocentrism at work. From a practical standpoint in a country that's home to a great deal of poverty, they're a source of meat that is extremely easy for anybody to breed at home. Besides which, they were raised as food in the Andes a couple thousand years before they became trendy as pets in the West, so if you're the pets or meat but not both type and you feel these guys should be sitting atop wood chips instead of potatoes, know that you're in the small minority that's rolling in and crashing the party at 2:00 AM. In any case, if this particular preparation of Cuy Frito was indicative of the dish in general, I'm not in a big rush to have it again. The flavor actually brought quail to mind, and the skin was wonderfully crispy in places. Unfortunately, it was tough and leathery in others, which wasn't enjoyable despite the delicious seasoning. But I suspect it wasn't quite right. Luz mentioned that she gets hers frozen from Peru, and I can't believe that's a good thing for the meat's texture. But whether a function of the meat's source, the kitchen's skill or just bad luck, I suspect it can be a whole lot better. If anybody with some broader cuy experience has tried Rinconcito's version, I'd be very curious to hear how it stacks up. In any case, it's served with some pickled onions and cheesy potatoes, both of which are a good match.

Dominic Armato
The other dish I had that will probably make some squirm was the Anticuchos, or grilled skewers of beef heart. I'm really getting to be a fan of heart. While it was at the other end of the refinement spectrum, I had a veal heart at Charlie Trotter's a couple of years back that just knocked my socks off. I'm not sure why heart isn't enjoyed more often. Well, I suppose I do, I just find it unfortunate. What I truly don't understand is why it's always lumped in with organ meats. Yes, it is an organ, I suppose, but it's fundamentally the same thing as a steak (i.e. muscle tissue), and in any case is a heckuva lot closer to a filet than it is to tripe or liver or sweetbreads or any other variety meats. It's just intense. Like any other muscle, the more it works, the tougher the texture and the stronger the flavor. Since the heart's never at rest, this is just an extreme example of that equation at work. At any rate, here it's prepared as simply as can be. It's grilled with a very light marinade, and served with rice and the same green dipping sauce as the Pollo alla Brasa. If intensely flavored grilled beefy beef is up your alley, this will satisfy immensely.

I've worked about halfway through the regular menu and typical specials, and the hardest thing in my recent visits has been deciding whether to continue exploring the cuisine or to double back and enjoy some of the favorites I've discovered thus far. Thankfully, Rinconcito Peruano is a humble, welcoming little place that I'm all too happy to return to. I expect to miss it when we leave.

Rinconcito Peruano
1801 E. Lombard St.
Baltimore, MD 21231
410-276-2036
Tue - Thu11:00 AM - 9:00 PM
Fri - Sat11:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Sun11:00 AM - 9:00 PM

Comments

Man, I live in DC now, and I dont have much to complain about in the food department (with the exception of prices). But reading about your finds in B-more make me jealous!

Dominic, a lot more to discover in peruvian cuisine, a lot left for your next trip, check out amazonian food, food for thought...

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