I'm not sure what to make of Peruvian cuisine. Is it Spanish? Is it African or Asian? Is it spicy? Potatoey? Fishy? Meaty? Bland? It can certainly be all these things, depending on the dish and even the region of Peru in question. The multi-cultural fusion that is Peruvian food makes it as mysterious as the Incans who had abandoned Machu Picchu.
Our first foray into Peruvian cuisine came several years ago via a stop at Sabor Peruano, a restaurant in Fairfield. The menu was unlike anything we'd ever tried. I don't remember exactly what I'd ordered (some sort of beef stew-like entree), but I do recall eating an ear of Peruvian corn whose gigantic kernels were, as one reviewer describes it, "the size of one's thumbnail." Eating food you never knew existed for the first time can be as exciting as it is confounding. Had we liked it? Were we now Peruvian food fans? We weren't quite sure.
Enter Tumi Cafe, another Peruvian restaurant that opened late last year in Mount Washington, a couple doors down from the Mt. Washington Creamy Whip. The "99% Green" business offers a moderate selection of Peruvian classics hosted in a small, colorful dining room whose artwork and clashing furniture lend it an almost kitschy feel.
There was some momentary confusion when we first walked in. A woman seated at a table smiled and greeted us with, "I'm on break, can you tell?" Seeing our confused faces, she repeated herself, as though that would somehow mitigate her unusual delivery.
Another woman (obviously not on break) gave us a warm welcome and sat us at a table as a guitarist seated near the front window strummed a tune. Live music is typically offered here Wednesdays and Fridays.
Perusing the menu, I was pleasantly surprised to find everything --even the entrees-- priced under $8. Wow! An array of soups, sandwiches, salads and potato or rice dishes were available in addition to the six entrees. There was a nice mix of chicken, fish and vegetable dishes among the main courses.
Three chicken entrees ranged in spiciness from "not too spicy" to "very spicy." The latter dish, Aji de Gallina, particularly intrigued us. It was described as shredded chicken mixed with a sauce of aji peppers (chili peppers), walnuts and Parmesan cheese.
All entrees are served with a choice of either plain white rice or "green" rice, which is white rice tricked up with herbs, peas and corn. Also included are a side of salsa criolla (made of aji peppers, red onion and vinegar) and two surritos (a kind of corn cake).
I chose the ceviche entree, a classic Peruvian mainstay of raw tilapia "cooked" with citrus juices and served with a side of green rice. As popular and important as potatoes are in Peru, I had to also try one of the signature side dishes called Papa a la Huancaina: boiled potatoes topped with cheese, aji peppers, hard-boiled egg slices and olives. My girlfriend choose the aforementioned Aji de Gallina.
A traditional "purple corn" drink on the menu sounded interesting; the waitress explained that the beverage, known in Peru as "Chicha Morada," is a purple corn reduction with added spices and sweeteners. I eagerly ordered a glass.
When I took my first sip, I thought it reminiscent of Kool-Aid, but that comparison belies the complexity of the flavor. No, this was not as sickly, syrupy-sweet as the kids' drink, with a slight spice aftertaste. I enjoyed it.
While we awaited our entrees, the waitress served us a small plate of surritos and the Papa a la Huancaina as an appetizer. It was a cold dish whose potatoes were soft with skins intact, topped with a mild, cheesy sauce. The acidic bite of the olives really helped brighten and offset the more muted flavors of the potatoes and hard-boiled egg.
The mild-tasting surritos were small biscuit-like medallions with a flavor not unlike corn bread --a perfect vehicle for transporting the spicy salsa criolla.
Our entrees arrived inside of 15 minutes. I've tried ceviche only a couple times in my life; it's intimidating to eat something you know is served raw, despite being armed with the foreknowledge that citrus juices essentially "cook" the fish through a chemical process called, "denaturation." The tilapia had been cut up into bite-size pieces and appeared to have been marinated properly, leaving the flesh firm but still only slightly opaque in appearance. After an initial hesitation, I soon found myself plowing away at the plate with full abandon. The fish had absorbed the flavor of the limey marinade, with minimal fishiness. Forkfuls of the tilapia mixed with the green rice enhanced its flavor.
My girlfriend's Aji de Gallina was a bit of a disappointment. While it was described as "very spicy" on the menu, it was in fact quite bland. Perhaps this dish is spicy to Peruvians, but to Americans bred on Mexican and Tex-Mex, it falls very low on the Scoville scale. Bland as it was, the flavor was still discernible, and given its shredded texture, it may have been more successful as a sandwich.
After only two encounters with Peruvian food, we're still not sure what to make of it, nor do we feel any closer to formulating a rounded opinion. We're just happy there's the opportunity to try such diverse cuisine in Cincinnati. More visits to both Tumi Cafe and Sabor Peruano are in order.