Folks like me—people who love the chase of an elusive, foreign flavor—do things like drive up Interstate 95 to troll under the 7 train bridge in Jackson Heights, Queens, searching for a perfect ceviche. Now we need to look no further than North Raleigh. MachuPicchu Peruvian Cuisine opened on Falls of Neuse Road just a few months ago. For Raleigh, and for North Carolina, this is huge.
In September, The Wall Street Journal declared Peruvian cuisine "food's next big thing." Peru's intriguing gastronomic hot pot caught the attention of international-food aficionados long ago. Next conquest: the States, to pepper American palates with aji chilies and sharp notes of lime.
The South American country prides itself on one of the most varied cuisines in the world. Every meticulously plated heap of food represents an intricate history. A crisp bite of yucca alludes to an era of native Indian empires after Spanish conquests. A pile of ceviche—chunks or strips of raw fish "cooked" in lime's natural acids—nods to a steady current of Japanese immigrants. Add to that the aromatic influences of African, Arab and Italian cooking culture, and the Peruvian palate is an adaptable one of great global influence.
Boasting more than 80 of the planet's 100-plus ecosystems, Peru spans the food spectrum, from leading the world in potato diversity (more than 4,000 varieties) to wowing tourists with Andean guinea pig seared on a stick, fresh corvina fish filets off the coast and jungle root vegetables from the Amazon rain forest.
Burrowed near a Stein Mart in a strip mall, the restaurant has a seemingly stoic atmosphere that transforms into a friendly demeanor once you're seated, with a service just as detailed as the complex layers of every dish. Settle into the Southern Hemisphere with the salty crunch of complimentary cancha, large toasted corn kernels, and sip some chicha morada ($1.99), a drink made from purple corn. Owners Victor and Gloria Orhuela boil and press the corn themselves, simmering it with apples, pineapples and spices like cinnamon. Victor, who originally hails from the Inca-influenced city of Cusco, says his chef/ wife, Gloria, who is from the capital city of Lima, is the "genius behind all this." Her repertoire includes long stints running kitchens at Miami country clubs and high-end hotel restaurants.
Bring a group and dive headfirst into true Peruvian fare with one of four types of ceviche appetizers on the menu ($11.95–$16.95), ranging from standard fish and shellfish versions to one made with ahi tuna and soy sauce. For the classic ceviche de pescado, Gloria's leche de tigre of hand-squeezed lime juice and aji amarillo (spicy yellow chili pepper) offers a perfect example of the cuisine's nearly inimitable use of acidic elements. That juice essentially "cooks" the thin slivers of swai—a mild, flaky fish—sliced to order. Victor says this fish is specifically frozen for at least 27 days at 7 degrees below zero to eliminate any risk of parasites. Six choros a la chalaca ($11.95) are fresh-tasting New Zealand mussels on the half shell, but the salsa on top is void of the piquant juices in the ceviche.
Split a few small home-style appetizers or sides, such as papa a la huancaina ($6), a popular potato dish smothered in a tangy creamy pepper sauce. A better, pleasant first for me was ocupa ($6), slices of boiled potato doused in a sauce of roasted peanut and huacatey, a South American black mint. Tamale devotees will appreciate the tamalito verde ($6), a hefty version with a heavy hand of cilantro blended with ground corn, then wrapped and steamed in its husk.
Those familiar with Peru's food will find comfort in signature dishes like aji de gallina ($9.95), a mountain of shredded chicken in a creamy sauce of cheese, walnuts and the aji pepper. It was too milky and mild for my liking, though the flavor suggests a spin on the comforting elements of chicken pot pie. MachuPicchu's lomo saltado ($20.95) leaves a dent in the wallet but a lasting impression on the palate. Notes of smoky sweet tomato, onions and cilantro are trapped in flame-broiled filet mignon strips with a side of fries, a strange but by-the-book accompaniment. Budget-conscious meat eaters can feast on seco de carne ($10.95), savory stewed beef with a side of rice and canary beans or a slew of chicken options, including the ever-popular breaded milanesa. Pescatarians: skip the homogeneous flavors of the rice-and-bean-centric tacu tacu and opt for something off the fried or Nouveau Andean menu—or more ceviche.
The first potatoes were discovered near Lake Titicaca. Honor the tradition with the "trilogy of tubers" ($16.95), a Nouveau Andean dish celebrating three varieties in fun, fried forms: a fist-sized white potato stuffed with ground beef and breaded; a light mousse of sweet potato whipped with white cheddar and then fried back into its shape; and tiny balls of fried yucca with melted cheddar cores. The playful dish is handcrafted with two slaw-like sides, one cabbage, one onion, and accented by three dipping sauces. Relish the meal with tropical lucuma ice cream ($6), a complex fruit with smooth notes of plum, malt and caramel. I'll be back for a weekend lunch, where "super specials" tempt me, along with the super ceviche.