Andean Heater

Photo by Jack GouldWe survived the Gringo Killer—twice. When the Inka Grill in Costa Mesa—a warm little restaurant with a rag-painted, terra-cotta-colored interior and South American masks, pots and other objets d'art adorning the walls—presented us with a basket of bread and a seemingly innocent squeeze bottle, we had no idea of the challenge facing us. But the Gringo Killer fell defeated before us: we had overcome the flavorful, green, South American pesto. It was spicy, but its warm chile serrano burn retreated quickly.

We ordered a victory appetizer: the calamari frito (fried calamari). It was fried but not greasy, tender but not chewy, and the batter was so tasty we didn't even miss the dipping sauce.

Our entrées—two variations of their picante dish, de carne and de pollo—arrived steaming hot in platter-sized plates. Our respective beef and chicken choices were swimming in sauce and served with a flattened, round cake of sticky white rice. The tendrils of steam from our plates crept up to our faces and lured us closer.

The strips of beef were sliced so thinly I had to ask how they did it: Lasers? A Teutonic slicing machine? “Sharp knives,” the waiter replied. Chastened, we silently returned to our dinners. The chicken was fresh and offered an equally appetizing experience. The sauce itself was smooth and garlicky and, again, had that even, warm, spicy burn that heats but doesn't sear. The rice was flavorful enough to enjoy even without sauce. We took home leftovers, the portions long outlasting our courageous appetites.

I've also partaken of the Inka Grill's camarones al ajo—garlic shrimp with rice. Six pieces of shrimp swimming in an orange-red sauce, a small green salad and another cake of white rice were presented. The garlic shrimp was everything it should be: filled with garlicky, shrimpy goodness. The side salad was doused with an incredible lime dressing so tangy and refreshing I even ate the normally bitter red cabbage that accompanied it with gusto.

All cultures having at least one form of bread, bread pudding has many international variations, from England's dark Christmas pudding and the rum-based French Creole pudding to Mexico's cheese-and-fruit pudding. Inka Grill's variation—an extremely dense, moist, light-brown bread pudding that tastes of cinnamon and sweetened sour cream—is a wild-beast soother. The Kahlua cream served with it is very light, not too sweet and only hints at the presence of the Kahlua. Soft, warm and comfortably rich, the bread pudding and sauce bring to a perfect end any meal you might have at Inka Grill.

The Inka Grill, located at 260 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, is open Sun.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. (717) 444-4652. Dinner for two, $50, food only. Beer and wine. AmEx, MC, and Visa accepted.

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