Somos Peru shines, sometimes
We all consume food, that's a fact. But for some of us, the ones I like to think of as especially blessed, the inverse is also true: Food consumes us. One of the ways this obsession manifests itself is that I watch a lot of cooking shows. Like, an embarrassing amount. What can I say? I find supreme, sumptuous comfort in the soothing English tones of Nigella's Kitchen. I'm both proud and thankful that I can recite hyper-detailed bits of food trivia and technical terms from years of watching Good Eats and (my personal favorite) America's Test Kitchen. I've been known to waste full weekend mornings watching marathons of Man vs. Food episodes that I have already seen, and I keep up with all the reality TV cooking competitions. Even the ones I kind of despise.
From Chopped to MasterChef to Food Network Star (am I the only one?), it seems like contestants are often admonished for "just making ceviche" when faced with some sort of seafood challenge, like it's a cop-out to just throw some raw seafood into some citrus juice and let the acid do all the work for you. But it's far from being a thoughtless dish. One must consider the appropriate marinating time for each type of fish, how much spice to add so as not to overpower, and other stylistic choices. Even if it's not particularly imaginative to see raw seafood and think "ceviche," I don't blame these pressure-cooked cheftestants for doing so. Ceviche is delicious and elegant, and it's exactly what I was craving when I ventured south to Somos Peru, a new restaurant in the Windom neighborhood.
Somos Peru offers at least three cebiches (that's how the Peruvians spell it), but each preparation is subject to the availability of ingredients on any given day. What's constant, though, and the element that makes these a little different from the ceviche you might be more familiar with, is chef Isabel Custodio's inclusion of Peruvian accoutrements. Our softly pink plate of cebiche de mariscos (shrimp, clams, mussels, and squid) came with sweet potatoes, cassava (yucca), hominy, and cancha (sort of a Peruvian corn nut). Since the country has declared a national holiday to honor this dish, I can think of no better introduction to Peruvian cuisine.
But not everything about Peruvian food has that fresh, firm, on-the-edge-of-raw quality. Far on the other end of the appetizer spectrum are salchipapas — a big, mishmashed pile of sliced beef hot dogs (salchicha means sausage) and French fries (that's where the papas come in) that represent Peruvian fast food at its best. The popularity of this dish has spread throughout South America over the years. A friend of mine who lived in Chile for some time said post-dancing, pre-dawn salchipapas were as much of a local tradition as Sunday mass. They were also the source of her newfound, unhealthy fixation with mayonnaise, which she brought back as a hard-to-shake souvenir when she returned to America. Somos Peru serves its salchipapas with a trio of ketchup, mustard, and mayo, but a word to the wise: When you're asked if you'd like hot sauce on the side of salchipapas or, well, just about anything, say yes. The all-around condiment is made with green chiles, chicken base, cilantro, garlic, and lime juice. It's similar to the chimichurri sauce popular in other South American countries but thicker and almost creamy in texture.
Moving through the appetizer menu, we were disappointed to learn that the restaurant was out of the causa limena atun, a dish made with lime-juice-mashed potatoes and layers of egg, olives, avocado, and tuna — almost like the components of a Nicoise salad made into Peruvian comfort food. "No one was really ordering it, so we might just end up taking it off the menu," a server told us. This was the first declaration of what became a recurring theme: Don't trust the menu, either online or in the restaurant. When we went for weekend breakfast, we were told they weren't serving it, even though the menu expressly said Peruvian breakfast served Saturdays and Sundays until noon and we had shown up, all ready for eggs, sausage, and headcheese (well maybe not fully ready for that) by 11 a.m. After a brief conference with the kitchen, our server informed us that the pan con chiccaron was the only thing available for Peruvian breakfast. Unfortunately that dish was pretty disappointing. It was essentially a big hunk of fatty but still somewhat dry pork and super-sad slices of flavorless sweet potato on a roll that was much too big for the sandwich, though the quality and crust of the bread was very good.
So breakfast didn't showcase much variety, but dinner proved to be a cornucopia of global influence. The flavors of Asian and western European immigrants made their way into Somos's food too. Many of the entrees employed liberal use of soy sauce, flashes of pasta and basil, and stir-frying. We especially liked the arroz con mariscos, a Peruvian take on paella; the aji de gallina, a brilliantly colored dish of shredded roast chicken in a mild sauce of yellow peppers blended with nuts, much like the concept of romesco sauce but richer; and jalea, which was all the components of the cebiche but fried light and crispy. The lomo saltado, though full of traditional flavors, seems like it would appeal to Midwestern tastes with its meat-and-potatoes sensibility, but the meat was over-the-top salty, the French fries and veggies were limp, and the grease settling into a pool in the middle of the plate made for a less than appetizing dish.
As of my last visit, Somos Peru was still awaiting its liquor license, but the Peruvian soft drinks are definitely worth a try. The Inca Kola — a super-sweet lemon-verbena-flavored soda, holds an iconic status in Peru. I expected the pineapple-sweetened chica morada, which translates to "purple corn drink," to be creamy or cloudy, like a corn-based horchata, but I learned later that the corn is only used to color the drink, so despite its deep, plummy hue, it basically drank like a very sweet, cold milled cider.
If you aren't already stuffed from starchy appetizers and meaty fried entrees, you have a few sweet options to cap off your Peruvian experience. Familiar favorites like tres leches cake and rice pudding were unfortunately unavailable on each of our visits, but we did tackle a massive piece of crema volteada, which is Peruvian-style flan. With its deeply caramelized top and base layer of chewy coconut, the confection was absolutely top-notch and could make a convert out of any hater of custard-type desserts.
Somos Peru teases with possibilities. I'd love to go back when it bulks up some areas of its menu and starts serving pollo la brasa, a.k.a. Peruvian roast chicken. Come fall, the restaurant also plans to test-drive a late-night menu with American bar fare like burgers and wings. As with many of Somos Peru's other menu items, their availability might be subject to supply and demand. I'm fine with that, just as long as they don't run out of flan.
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