An intriguing melding of native, Spanish, Italian and Asian influences, Peruvian cuisine is one of the most diverse and delicious in the world.
There are fiercely acidic ceviches, fiery tiraditos, flash-fried fish, stir-fries, rice pots, potato purees, pastas and mellow, herb-tinged sauces in colors as stunning as a sunset. And, the peppers, oh, the peppers.
One of my new favorite Peruvian spots is 3-month-old Cholo’s in a North Miami Beach strip mall. Clean and brightly lit as a doctor’s office, it’s warmed up by earth-tone walls, rainbow-colored paintings and flame-colored pendant lights.
Cholo literally means mestizo
(mixed), but is used as a familiar greeting among friends. At lunchtime, this friendly restaurant is filled with paint-splattered workmen, young couples, families, office workers and retirees.
Ceviches are top-notch, but I also adore the leche de tigre shots described as “three of the most powerful non-alcoholic shots you’ll ever have.” And, boy, are they ever. The tender bits of octopus in a bright orange rocoto chile marinade is the best, but the classic with swai (or basa) and ají amarillo (yellow chile) with tidbits of shrimp are also bracing.
Tiraditos include my favorite, the Cholo’s, marinated octopus and tender white fish covered in a rich orange sauce of rocoto chiles and pisco with plump nibs of giant, pale yellow corn.
No one does potatoes better than the Peruvians. Here, the stately causas (whipped potatoes spiked with ají amarillo) are formed into thumb-high cylinders and stuffed with a delightful crab salad with mayonnaise and slivers of avocado.
Also satisfying is a platter of skinned and boiled, purple-tinged potato slices blanketed half in a bright green mint sauce and half in huanciana sauce, a blend of fresh white cheese and yellow chiles. Hard-boiled egg slices had a green tinge from overcooking, but everything else was spot on.
Classics include lomo saltado stir-fry with chewy strips of beef, bright purple onions and fresh red tomato smiles. An exemplary pollo a la brasa is seasoned with citrus, cumin and garlic and served with an incendiary mint sauce, cooling mayonnaise and a platter of thick, golden fries.
Classic chicha morada, the deep purple corn “tea” generously spiked with cloves, cinnamon and sugar, is served here by the glass or pitcher. Sweet as candy and dark as velvet, it is the way to go, though there is Peruvian beer and Argentine wine, too.
Desserts are as charming as the overall experience here. Our waitress, who juggled a nearly full restaurant with a smile, took the time to lead me behind the bar, where we peered into a standup cooler of postres
from house-made crema volteada (like flan), gorgeously scorched leche asada and an exquisite barvarois de guindones, an airy confection of egg whites dotted with bits of sweet prune.
Though I swooned over the homemade fancies, homesick Peruvians seemed thrilled to find packaged lucuma ice cream by Nestle.
The prices are incredibly reasonable all the time, but the lunch specials seem impossible at just $5.50 for the daily offering and two side dishes. Thursday is ají de gallina (chicken in creamy pepper sauce) day, when you might find me there.
If you go
Place: Cholo’s Ceviche & Grill
Address: 1127 NE 163rd St., North Miami Beach
Rating:★ ★ ★ (Very Good)
Hours: Noon-10 p.m. daily
Prices: Appetizers $6-$8, entrees $4-$14, sides $2-$3, dessert $1.75- $3. Daily lunch specials with two sides $5.50
FYI: Plentiful self parking. Beer and wine only; corkage $20. Takeout available. DS, MC, VS.