There used to be a different Peruvian restaurant at the very spot Inka Mama's has recently claimed as its fourth Orange County location. By all accounts, it did a very capable plate of lomo saltado, a dish all Peruvian restaurants worth their aji sauce have to offer to prove they're Peruvian. Never mind that the origins of saltado are more Chinese than Incan or that ceviche is actually the country's national dish: For a lot of Americans, saltado has become the representative meal of a nation most of us only know for pan flutes and Machu Picchu. Saltado is the gateway drug, the dish that indoctrinated me to the wonders of that country's cuisine almost two decades ago, and it's the dish I order at Peruvian restaurants before any other.
And the saltado that Inka Mama's now sears in its woks here, across from South Coast Plaza, is the kind of dish that should indoctrinate even more Peruvian-food converts. Served on a rectangular plate and next to a wall of moist rice enriched with chicken broth, it's a never-ending Andes of food. And as with all good saltados, the fries are still crisp, the steak tender, and the red onion wilted to the point at which its harshness has been cooked out but it hasn't lost its snap. Most important, this saltado isn't wet or overly soupy; there are just enough of its cumin-and-soy stir-fry leavings to soak up with the rice, but not too much that it dampens its resolve.
Somewhere along the way, you will use up all of the aji sauce the restaurant serves as a complimentary side to a basket of bread. This creamy, jade-green substance—the Peruvian equivalent to Sriracha—has a sneaky, herby hotness that tastes good on everything. You dribble a little here on a French fry, then you drip some on your rice, and soon, you'll smother every piece of food that should pass your lips with it as though it were fairy dust. Most Peruvian eateries supply it in plastic squeeze bottles; here at Inka Mama's—a decidedly classier joint with a bar that also mixes a potent, frothy-headed pisco sour—the aji is served in tiny bowls with a tiny spoon, perhaps so you don't overdose or overdouse.
The rest of the menu is listed in a laminated, spiral-bound album with professional photos. Inka Mama's does a formidable plate of tallarin verde, a bastardized dish of Italian spaghetti coated in a viscous sauce made with spinach and basil so Hulk-green it's like pesto times 10. That's eaten in concert with a spice-blasted, breaded chicken breast called an apanado that blankets the mound. The fillet is pounded so thin it tears off with just a tug and is more tender and juicy than a piece of white meat chicken has any business being. Its Bizarro World cousin is found in the specialties list: the estofado, in which the chicken is pan-sautéed instead of deep-fried and drenched in a sauce just as green, but made with garlic and cilantro.
Inka Mama's ceviche is also very good. The fingers of white fish, wiggles of squid and shrimp are acid-firmed by not only lime juice, but also a yellow-tinted, chile-inflected liquid that could function as a spicy chaser to tequila. It's listed as an appetizer, but as with everything here, it's portioned as a meal and grounded by boiled potatoes, yams and a sprinkling of crunchy cancha. Get this over the jalea, which has the same list of sea critters battered and deep-fried, but is bogged down with sarza criolla and pickled onion that turn everything into a mess as soggy as newspapers left out in the rain.
When you're ready for something that will really stick to your ribs, try the rendition of aji de gallina. It's as thick as Spackle®, with shredded, white-meat chicken embedded in a slow-moving, yellow sauce made with Peruvian aji amarillo, ground walnuts and cream. If it weren't coupled with boiled potatoes and black olives to temper its richness, you could almost spread it on toast and make a hell of a chicken-salad sandwich. Or try the causa, an appetizer made of chicken salad layered with perhaps too much raw onion in a cylindrical tower of seasoned, lukewarm mashed potatoes.
Those new to the restaurant should also consider the Piqueo Andino, a gigantic sampler plate of patiently braided empanadas bursting meat juice, a dense tamal, papa a la huancaina and ruddy piles of boneless fried chicken the Peruvians call chicharrón. It's one of the most expensive offerings at Inka Mama's, but if you're a Peruvian-food virgin, this platter is second only to saltado as the best way to learn about this great cuisine—and if you're trying Peruvian for the first time, did you just fall from the turnip truck?
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.