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Latin Chef

1142 Garnet Avenue, Pacific Beach

Way, way back, my significant other and I got a dream assignment from a friend who was an editor at a slick new Playboy spin-off called Oui. Our mission: to drive down the Pan-American Highway from San Francisco to Tierra del Fuego, the tip of South America, and report on the trip. Our chariot was a severely dented 1957 Chevy Apache pickup with a rebuilt engine and a set of knobbly dirt tires -- the perfect vehicle because it looked like everyone else's, south of the border. By the time we reached Lima, the truck needed serious work -- the narrow, teeth-jarring, edge-of-the-mountain mud-and-rock "highway" winding through the Colombian and Ecuadorian Andes had killed the shocks. We were bottoming out on every bounce and looking at plenty more dirt roads ahead of us. We turned the truck over to a Lima garage and flew up to Cuzco for ten days' unscheduled R&R.

The food in Lima was really good -- the best and spiciest we'd tasted since crossing the border from Chiapas to Guatemala. (Longing for a taste of the familiar at 6000 light-years from home, we even found a terrific Cantonese restaurant downtown, El Gran Wony, where they made their "sweet and sour" with tamarind.) But the food in Cuzco was even better -- gr-r-r-r-eat! A dish called ají de gallina (chicken with peppers) blew our socks off -- one of the spiciest concoctions we'd ever tasted. Under the heat were rich, currylike layers of flavors from ground walnuts, cheese, and breadcrumbs. (Ají, by the way, is the South American Spanish word for all types of chilies, mild to torrid; it stems from Quechua, the language of the Inca Empire that stretched its fingers all the way up to Panama. Chile derives from the pre-Columbian Native-American languages of Mexico, and you rarely hear it south of Costa Rica, except to refer to the country of that name.)

Ever since that trip, whenever I hear about a local Peruvian restaurant, I'm there. And Latin Chef, almost from opening day, has been garnering happy words on all the finest food blogs. The day this review comes out, August 30, is the saint's day of Santa Rosa de Lima, one of Peru's most beloved icons (especially popular with the Peruvian police), so it's especially fitting to focus on that country's cuisine.

The restaurant is a tiny, colorful storefront (about eight tables) midblock on the north side of Garnet. With no carpets or tablecloths, the sound bounces around loudly. At a second dinner, my mini-posse was happier eating on the tiny patio outside, even though it meant we couldn't hear the lovely Andean music on the sound system.

A meal starts with a bowlful of canchitos, large toasted, salted corn kernels to nibble. Bet you can't eat just ten. The owner, Freddy Palma, is a former journalist from Cuzco, and as you look over the menu, he'll be happy to answer your questions and explain anything, like a charming, articulate ambassador for his cuisine and culture. Whether or not you bring a bottle of wine, try the chicha morada ("purple cider"), a refreshing, fruity-tasting drink made of purple corn, brown sugar, and cinnamon. It goes with all the food.

The two ceviches sampled at two dinners proved I hadn't gone wrong in coming here. You can get a ceviche de pescado (all fish) or a mixto (a mixture of seafood -- fish, shrimp, calamari, and octopus, plus slices of potatoes and beets), both in a strong Persian lime marinade, with enough hot pepper to sharpen it up without bringing it to the threshold of pain. I liked the pescado version better, for the velvety texture of the fish fillet pieces and the slightly higher spice level. The fish is white bass, standing in for its close cousin, Peruvian corvina (which isn't the same as the smaller, fattier Mexican corvina from Baja). The ceviches are salty, but that's typical of coastal Peru: Consider that a typical brisk autumn day in Lima is 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 90 percent humidity, with an odd aroma of rotting clams in the atmosphere. In that climate, you need salt. Both versions of the dish come with cancha -- huge boiled kernels of Andean hominy (a starchy variety of white corn that's been slaked with lime, a process that releases more nutrients). Freddy has gone to great lengths to obtain real Peruvian hominy instead of serving the standard gringo compromise of local corn on the cob.

Papas a la huancaina ("potatoes in the style of Huancayo," a small city in the Andes, south of Cuzco) and yuca a la huancaina (cassava-root "fries") are both offered. They're quite different from each other. The yuca version consists of cassava-root fries with a tart, slightly spicy white dipping sauce that may be yogurt-based. I didn't find it especially special. The potato version, on the other hand, is the most convincing rendition I've tasted in the U.S. Starchy red boiling potatoes in thick slices are swathed in a cheese sauce garnished with hard-cooked eggs -- very similar to what I ate in Cuzco. Given the local scarcity of llama cheese, most restaurants in the States substitute feta, which is all wrong (way too tart and grainy). Here, you get a proper creamy golden sauce (based on unsweetened evaporated milk, the way it is in the Andes) with melted Mexican panela cheese. It's rico suave (tasty and smooth), as it should be, and the right color, too. Peruvians love golden-yellow food, a tradition going back to the sun-worshiping Incas, well before the Spaniards arrived and introduced saffron. The cuisine incorporates mild golden peppers (ají amarillo), a gold-colored tropical leaf (palillo), and a mild light-orange paprika (ají colór) to turn everything that's white to gold. I doubt that turmeric is a native root, but by now it too has been adopted into the cuisine as a powerful colorant.

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