So here's what happened since we last checked in: Lima City (a Peruvian food stall in an Irvine food court I previously reviewed) is gone, replaced by Peruvian Kitchen, who moved out from its Fountain Valley digs, which is now occupied by another Peruvian restaurant called Casa Inka.
I won't attempt to explain the reasoning behind this game of Peruvian restaurant musical chairs, except to say that it sounds like the plot of a bad telenovela. But whatever may have occurred behind the scenes, it's a good turn of events, at least for Irvine.
At first, I didn't think so. When I saw that new owners had taken over Lima City in a bloodless coup, I shunned their offerings. I was a Lima City loyalist, entrenched in a comfortable routine of ordering nothing but their mushroom chicken from a heated trough.
I ate the dish once a week. Sometimes even twice or three times. Sure, it wasn't something I'd ever seen at any other Peruvian restaurants. And yes, the dish's authenticity was dubious. It's deliciousness, however, was undeniable. Above all, it was quick, good, and cheap — perfect for a working schlub with only an hour to spare for lunch.
Who was this interloper who drove my mushroom chicken into permanent exile? Within a few weeks, new signs were installed, revealing that it was none other than Peruvian Kitchen, the highly regarded Fountain Valley restaurant which I hadn't gotten around to trying.
And what better than lomo saltado to test the waters. The chifa staple is the pad thai of Peruvian food; a dish that isn't exactly indigenous but still ubiquitously popular in Peru and in Peruvian restaurants stateside.
The first thing I notice shortly after I ordered the saltado was the leaping flames of a stove reflected on the walls of an unseen kitchen. Someone back there was working a wok over a very high BTU burner. Since saltado is essentially a Chinese stir-fry mixed with Latin flavor, this was a good sign.
Scarcely five minutes later, my order was handed to me, already packed in Styrofoam container.
I found a seat and flipped open the lid. When I did, a plume of hot steam carrying the aroma of cumin and soy sauce escaped. It smelled exactly right. Then I took a bite and tasted the best saltado I've had since El Pollo Inka in Lawndale.
The beef wasn't just tender, it melted. Everything that surrounded it — the fries, the red onion, the tomato — was wokked and seasoned perfectly. It was flavorful, crisp, and alive.
Even the rice was spot on. Cooked with a hint of chicken broth in a similar manner as Hainan chicken rice, the starch could've functioned as a standalone dish.
Though it was one of the more expensive meals I've ever had in a food court ($9.69 after tax), it marked the moment that I greeted this occupying force as liberators.
Rest in peace mushroom chicken, wherever you are.
2540 Main St. #J
Irvine, CA 92614