I’ve Got to Be a Machu Man
The Lost City of the Incas—well, at least their food—discovered in Fountain Valley
No other icon is as indelibly Peruvian as Machu Picchu. And no one knows it more than OC’s few but proud Peruvian restaurateurs. Around these parts, a Peruvian eatery without a mural or a poster of the familiar mountaintop “Lost City of the Incas” is as rare as a church without a crucifix. And the image is always larger than life—an in-your-face proclamation of “Yes, we’re Peruvian! And no, you didn’t just walk into a Mexican restaurant.”
You’ll see Casa Inka’s ode to Machu Picchu on a big canvas, hung on a dominant wall in a room that also features more thatched roofing than a tiki bar. The space—previously occupied by Peruvian Kitchen—has a brightly lit, sunny disposition that all but disarms you into trying things you’ve never sampled before.
Before you know it, you’re chomping down on skewers of grilled cow’s heart called anticuchos. You dab a smoky morsel into aji amarillo—a smoldering chili sauce that burns longer than plutonium—to find it really tastes like heart, an organ meat that has a dense, resilient character all its own.
Still too timid for offal? Try the chicken chicharron instead. The appetizer is intended to appease the meek, since it’s nothing but thinly sliced breast meat that’s been battered and deep-fried. You could argue it’s just one rung up from a fast-food joint’s chicken tenders, but a sour-savory dunking of soy sauce and lime juice will drown out such thoughts.
Empanadas are served with the same dipping brew. But these Peruvian turnovers don’t need it. Filled with either heavily spiced ground beef or chopped-up bits of chicken, they’ve been plunged into hot oil, fried until the crust bubbles and blisters. Only two come with an order, so be prepared to share if you have more than one friend.
The tamales suffer from the same problem: Only one is included for the exorbitant price of $6.25, and almost half the bulk is its banana-leaf wrapper. But the aroma the leaf imparts to the tamale is essential. The faint botanical fragrance permeates every moist molecule of the masa and its filling of pork, hard-boiled eggs, peanuts, chili pepper and a black olive. Served with salsa criolla—a refreshing salad of shaved red onions in perky lime juice—it’s actually the lightest of all the appetizers.
You’ll need the stomach space for the generous main courses. The selection runs through the staples of a country whose cuisine reflects its conquerors and immigrants. Order the “Chicken Parmesan” pasta dish, and you’ll receive a standard but competent fettuccine Alfredo topped with a crunchy, breaded chicken breast akin to Japanese katsu.
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Then there’s the Chinese influence in dishes such as chaufa de pollo (chicken fried rice) and the ever-present lomo saltado: a stir-fry of steak strips, tomatoes, red onions, cilantro and French fries. The latter is arguably the most sought-after dish at every Peruvian restaurant in Southern California. Casa Inka does it right, deeply flavoring it with cumin and soy, blessing it with the searing kiss of a wok, and pairing it next to rice steamed with a hint of chicken broth.
There’s also a seafood saltado, which is seasoned with a gentler touch. But don’t even ask if they have chicken saltado. Any Peruvian will tell you, without irony, it’s an American bastardization of the dish. If you want chicken, order the aji de gallina, a meal bound by tradition, in which a thick, turmeric-based gravy is studded with shredded white meat, then set to smother a boiled potato, sprinkled with grated Parmesan and crowned with sliced egg. The creamy, mustard-colored concoction tastes like the purest essence of chicken and is meant to be enjoyed with plenty of rice.
For big eaters, there’s the “Inka Combo,” which the restaurant states is “good for two people.” They’re wrong: It feeds four. This protein-apalooza is Casa Inka’s answer to Brazilian churrasco—an eat-with-your-hands meat feast of mesquite-grilled chicken breast, a thin plank of top sirloin, two pork chops, two shrimp skewers and, best of all, spicy Polish sausages flecked with char. Logs of potatoes that have been steamed, then deep-fried and mixed with grilled scallions peek out from the pile, but their presence on the plate will look like a man dwarfed by the majesty of Machu Picchu itself.
Casa Inka, 8610 Warner Ave., Fountain Valley, (714) 847-7555. Open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Lunch specials, $6.99; dinner for two, $25-$50, food only. Beer and wine.