This Hole-in-the-Wall Life

Food courts are refuges for the desperate, thepeople who work blocks away from edible lunch options and don't care about bland grub as long as it's E. coli-free. That bland reliability seems to be in store for the Irvine workers who patronize the Plaza Food Court near the corner of Main Street and Jamboree Road. All the hallmarks are there: Baja Fresh, stands selling Greek, sandwiches, Japanese and Chinese food. And then there's the small miracle called Lima City .

Lima City sells Peruvian favorites, and surprisingly good renditions considering its humble abode. The tallarn—Peruvian chow mein usually sauced like spaghetti—is served in heaps, often topped with beef pounded as thin as a magazine, then dipped in batter and fried; it's like eating a fried-egg sandwich. The soups are thick and chock-full of seafood, the rice dishes plentiful, the ceviche sour and containing a whole corn-on-the-cob. Lima City also offers an ever-changing buffet that can feature anything from cod fillets to crispy empanadas.

Most of the menu here is illustrated with bright pictures that run the length of the counter and hang overhead. But if you look to your right, to the piece of green construction paper marked "Daily Specials," you'll find entres rarely found in county Peruvian restaurants. These items aren't always prepared, and they tend to sell out quickly when available, so visit Lima City before the lunchtime rush. I still haven't come early enough to try some of them—mofongo (the Peruvian version of menudo) always seems to run out, along with a strangely named dish that the blond owner tells me is dried potato.

But everything else on the special menu excels. On top of the list (literally and figuratively) are the Peruvian tamales. And though Peruvian cuisine isn't typically thought of as spicy, the heat burrowed inside the mushy masa is enough to make a Mexican wince. Baked into the tamale is shredded beef, peanuts, olives and a whole hard-boiled egg that lies hiding within like the statue in a New Orleans king cake. Tallarn also makes an appearance, slathered in Velveeta, crumbled cheese and garlic, a jumble of heartiness borne from the Italians. And whenever you visit, order the anticuchos, skewered beef hearts paired with pork belly. They take a while to cook, but the wait is worth it: the marinade seeps all the way into the holding stick until you get the most flavorful toothpick on Earth.

LIMA CITY, 2540 MAIN ST., Ste. J, Irvine, ?(949) 553-1401.

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