|Lomo Saltado||Dominic Armato|
UPDATE : Contigo Peru has closed
Since we've been moving around a lot over the past few years, I've developed what I think I can now refer to as a habit. Moving to a new town requires reestablishing go-to spots, particularly when you're fond of hitting a variety of ethnic cuisines on a regular basis. So while there's usually a good amount of information to be found online, being in a new town also means that I typically don't yet have a sense of who's worth listening to and who's worth ignoring. And while I've already found a goodly number of folks whose opinions I trust here in Phoenix, Peruvian hasn't been very prominent on their radar. The good news is that I don't see pounding the pavement as a chore. I see it as an opportunity.
|Ceviche de Pescado||Dominic Armato|
It's actually one of my favorite ways to explore restaurants. Pick a neighborhood, or an entire city if the cuisine in question isn't especially well-represented, exercise my Google-fu to compile a comprehensive list of every place I can find, and then go on a binge over the course of a couple of weeks, trying benchmark dishes at all of them to get a sense of which places merit further exploration and which probably aren't worth the time. So when I got a craving for some Peruvian a couple of weeks ago, I made a list of every place I could find in the valley serving the cuisine. The list was only six restaurants long, so I decided to hit them all. My task was quickly simplified by the fact that two of them, Peruanitos and La Roca, are no more. That left Rincon Peruano, Villa Peru, El Farol and Contigo Peru. I'd intended to do a big roundup, writing about them all, but one struck me as so much more compelling than the others that I ultimately decided just to write about my favorite of the bunch. Run by a wonderfully friendly Peruvian family, Contigo Peru is a great restaurant that I expect will make discerning fans of Peruvian quite happy. What's more, focusing on the foods of Lima and presenting them in a very traditional state, it's a place that novices can go with the confidence that they'll be getting a true sense of one of the world's most fascinating cuisines.
I've written about my history with Peruvian before, my epiphany regarding its surprising sophistication, my harrowing whirlwind trip to Peru, and my subsequent effort to educate myself as much as possible. So I'll refrain from rehashing the entire story again (partly because I still get a little ill just thinking about it). But the part that bears repeating for those who aren't familiar with Peruvian is that it's a vibrant and exciting cuisine that, perhaps above all, is very, very unique. South American cuisine evokes images of massive slabs of lightly seasoned meats, and starch upon starch upon starch. But Peru's cuisine is different. It's been shaped by the influences of many diverse immigrant populations, and what has evolved is a natural fusion cuisine incorporating elements of Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Italian, among others. They're plenty big on meats and starches, to be sure, but Peruvian incorporates pastas, stir-fries, some Japanese attitudes towards fish... the list goes on. Suffice it to say that it's full of surprises, most of them good ones.
A dish surprising to me the first time I tried it was Peruvian ceviche. It is, like any other ceviche found throughout the Latin world, seafood that's lightly cured in citrus juice. But not only do Peruvian ceviches always strike me as unusually complex, they also come buried in vegetation the likes of which you most likely aren't accustomed to seeing atop mostly raw fish. Raw shaved onion, boiled corn and sweet potato, and cancha -- crunchy, salty fried corn kernels -- not only adorn the fish but make it complete. The first taste, with the sharpness of lime, sweetness of orange and a healthy amount of chile heat, oftentimes might seem overly acidic, as though the balance is out of whack. But eating it with a little bit of everything on the plate not only rounds out the flavors but, between the soft potato and snack-like cancha, gives it an unusual textural appeal that you don't typically get with a ceviche. Contigo Peru's version is a very nice one, my only complaint being with the fish itself. Tilapia, perhaps? I wouldn't swear to it. It wasn't the most flavorful fish. Still, even slightly handicapped in this regard, it's a delicious enough version that I wouldn't hesitate to go back for it, and it's something that every Peruvian novice should try.
|Sopa a la Criolla||Dominic Armato|
Another Peruvian staple that isn't listed on the menu but is still offered periodically (just ask) is anticuchos, skewers of marinated and grilled beef heart. For the squeamish, beef heart is as inoffensive as offal comes (not even sure why it always falls into the "offal" category... it's a muscle, just like any other cut of beef). I like a little more char on mine than I got at Contigo, but the flavor was great, nicely marinated and seasoned, possessed of the kind of bold, beefy flavor you'd expect from any muscle that gets that much work, and the accompanying salsa (or any others they've set on the table) is a perfect partner. Another starter that was new to me, and thus quickly made my must-try list, is a dish called Causa. Causa's apparently a fairly versatile dish, consisting of mashed potatoes seasoned with aji amarillo -- Peruvian yellow chiles -- and lime juice, and served layered with a filling, tuna, shrimp, chicken or avocado being common favorites. Contigo's version is filled with chicken salad, and it's at once new and familiar. The chicken salad is very finely minced, dressed with mayonnaise, the potatoes have a light acidic touch that doesn't get overpowering, and it's dusted with paprika and parmesan cheese. Served cold, it actually comes off as rather refreshing, and though it kind of messes with your preconceptions of where chicken salad is and isn't appropriate, I found that I really enjoyed it.
|Aji de Gallina||Dominic Armato|
Less successful for me was the Sopa a la Criolla, featuring a common facet of Peruvian cuisine, that of sneaky, unexpected pasta. It's a beef soup with a touch of tomato, more aji amarillo, a little evaporated milk, herbs (oregano seems popular) and more substantial elements, including an whole fried egg (yolk intact), thick toast saturated with something delicious but indecipherable to me, and a whole lot of linguine at the bottom of the bowl. There's a great base here, warm and comforting and complex, but it needs bite. Having no experience with the dish, I can't say whether this is typical or not. I suspect a little more heat and a touch more salt would have woken it right up, but as it stood it was the lone miss of my two visits. I've actually found this to be a theme with Peruvian cuisine, where "spicy" really isn't very spicy. I'm unsure whether Peruvian is, in general, a little more tame, or if it's just that I'm routinely being inaccurately profiled by my server as a mild kind of guy. Either seems plausible. But in any case, while I abhor spicy for spicy's sake, this was a situation where I think more heat was warranted.
|Chaufa de Carne||Dominic Armato|
One of my favorite Peruvian dishes, both in general and specifically at Contigo, is Aji de Gallina. Again, it isn't listed on the menu, but they have it most weekends (Friday through Sunday) and you should definitely feel obligated to ask for it. The look of it isn't exactly inspiring. Visually speaking, it's more Lunch Lady Doris than Lunch Lady Dora. But looks deceive. Aji de Gallina is a wonderfully complex and flavorful dish, featuring shredded chicken that's stewed with potatoes, milk-soaked bread, ground walnuts, parmesan cheese, garlic, hard-boiled eggs, aji amarillo and, in Contigo's case, a touch of turmeric, among other seasonings. Again, I've never found it to be terribly spicy, but there's a little bit of gentle heat, and it's an odd sort of creamy, comforting dish with a lot of layers of flavor and Contigo's version is one of the better ones I've tried. If I'm there on a weekend, as much as I want to continue to explore the menu, this is going to be a tough one to pass up.
|Pescado a lo Macho||Dominic Armato|
Another comforting Peruvian classic is Lomo Saltado, which takes South American meat and starch and gives them the Chinese treatment. It's a stir-fry, where strips of beef and fried potatoes meet tomatoes, onions, soy sauce, lime and herbs. It isn't the most sophisticated dish around, but it's sizzling and hearty and easy to like, and I found Contigo's to be nicely sauced while still maintaining some of the fries' texture, something that I've found is often lacking in such a dish. Along Chinese lines, one of the Peruvian dishes I'd never quite gotten around to trying was Chaufa which, as you might have surmised from the name, is the Peruvian take on fried rice (Chow Fun). I'd never pulled the trigger because it always seemed like... well... fried rice. And Contigo's version pretty much confirmed that suspicion. But it's still quite good, even if it isn't one of Peru's more distinctive dishes.
Another new dish to me, and one that I'll most definitely be working into the future rotation, is Pescado a lo Macho. Of course, fish isn't the only thing that can get the "a lo Macho" treatment, but here it's a sizeable fish fillet that's been breaded and fried before being topped with a pile of mixed seafood that's smothered in a sauce that actually starts to push into spicy territory, mostly by virtue of an abundance of aji rojo, aji amarillo's red counterpart. I got garlic and onion... perhaps ginger?... and though many recipes include cream, if Contigo's did as well it was just a touch. Mostly it was oily and hot, and that was more than enough. It's a delicious dish. What's more, the seafood mix included some of the most tender octopus I've ever encountered, and that alone merits big points.
Though I haven't officially sampled the desserts, one of the owners, Monica, couldn't help but to bring us a little sample of Alfajores, a thick, milky caramel reminiscent of dulce de leche sandwiched between shortbread cookies and dusted with powdered sugar. I don't think they're generally available in the tiny bite-sized format we received, but given the degree to which I overordered on both occasions, it was just the right amount of dessert... a perfect finish.
The thing that gets me about Peruvian cuisine, aside from the fact that it's so darn tasty, is that it completely messes with my sense of convention. Since it's such an unusual blend of cuisines, it's always odd, always striking, always new to me, no matter how much of it I try. Peruvian isn't terribly well-known in the States, and that's really a shame, because it's a unique and diverse cuisine that deserves more attention than it gets. In Contigo Peru, I feel like I've come across a place where the family running it is passionate about the cuisine, anxious to share it, and fully capable of doing it justice. The menu's pretty extensive, and there's a lot to explore. I'm very much looking forward to doing so, because the more I learn about Peruvian, the more I find I want to learn about Peruvian, and this is a great place to do it.
|1245 W. Guadalupe Road|
|Mesa, AZ 85202|
|Tue - Sat||11:30 AM - 9:00 PM|
|Sun||11:30 AM - 8:00 PM|