By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
A scene in 2003s Lost in Translation depicts Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) ordering shabu shabu from a menu that is basically a photo essay of various arrangements of raw meat. Bob, a bit frustrated for various reasons, looks at the waiter, points to the photo and fingers the universal sign for two as Charlotte sits in quiet confusion. Its a brilliant scene for conveying in subtle, normal mannerisms how, without a common language, we sometimes turn into reluctant culinary adventurers.
One initially feels similar helplessness at El Tumi, a Peruvian restaurant in Irving. Peruvian food has many influences, with Chinese, Native American and Spanish threads weaving in and out of its dishes, and much is lost in translation. But those of us from the Melting Pot can find several familiar or, at least, alluring choices...even if we can't pronounce them correctly.
During one of my visits, I had the benefit of a fluent Spanish speaker/former resident of Peru. The other visit, I did not. I understand a bit of the language but don't speak a lick of it. And given that most of El Tumi's staff speaks Spanish, I was at a loss for much of my time there. But, in a way, I enjoyed it even more for the mystery. And I've been assured that the interior and atmosphere—riddled with Machu Picchu mementos, painted peaks and native dance recitals on loop on the TVs—is "very Peru." As someone not well-versed in Peruvian culture, surprises awaited me, just as they would in the Andes.
2430 N. Story Road
Irving, TX 75062
Region: Irving & Las Colinas
Ceviche de pescado$12
Bisteck a lo pobre$14
Arroz con pollo$15
Chicha morada$1.50 glass/$5 pitcher
Take for instance the papa rellena. "Deep-fried mashed potatoes," as the menu's description begins, sounds like a starch-lover's dream come true. (My muffin top excitedly prepped for add-on.) "Stuffed with seasoned beef, onions, tomatoes and a touch of raisins," the menu continued. Even better. But something was amiss: As we dove into the golden brown lump, there was a distinct absence of tomatoes, and we were apparently traded raisins for olives. Surprising? Yes. Different flavor profile than expected? Absolutely. The lime-marinated onions (salsa criolla) that accompany the papa rellena and most other dishes, however, were lively and delicious and understandably piled high.
The tamal was composed of a very hefty cornmeal shell filled with virtually the same stuffing from our papa rellena—non-identifiable "meat" and black olives. Perfectly steamed in a banana leaf, the tamal was already a spicy, satisfying dish, but with the heat boost from the house cilantro hot sauce, it became a hearty and heavenly burn.
Of the starters, our biggest surprises came from the ceviche de pescado and the anticuchos. The ceviche was absolutely alive with flavor—chile and lime coursed through every hunk of marinated fish. (Our dining companion—Peru girl—observed that it was missing tomato but was otherwise just as she remembered.) The fish was delicate and tender, perfect on the taste buds and for the chew. The accompanying potatoes—one sweet and one white—and the Peruvian corn (it earned the nickname "swollen corn" by the end of our visit) were fine to temper the acid of the ceviche but made for a mealy mouthful in their chilled states.
And, oh, the anticuchos. The common cart food in Peru often sold and served "on the trails" as my dining pal noted from her experiences, provided our biggest heart-to-heart moment...literally. We excitedly ordered her hiking snack and quickly tucked into the perfectly cooked hunks of seared beef. I paused from chewing and said, "This is offal," at which point my dining mate most likely mistook what I said and worriedly replied with something to the effect of, "Oh my God, I think I remember these being made from heart. No, no, see on the menu it just says 'beef.' I'll ask." Now, heart isn't a bad taste, and it's certainly not an awful cut of beef, but it is offal, meaning it is an organ meat often discarded in favor of traditional cuts. In some countries and areas of the United States, offal in certain forms is a delicacy—think haggis, sweetbreads and Rocky Mountain oysters. Peru favors ye ol' corazón, and that's exactly what El Tumi's native Peruvian owner plopped down in front of us.
Marinated in vinegar but obviously seasoned with soy, the meat was tender and oddly soulful but a bit salty. Its organ-ic nature made for that telltale metallic taste that would remind Southerners of giblets and generally clumsy folk of the taste of a fresh paper cut. Get used to (or be prepared for) the flavor, however, and El Tumi's anticuchos are quite lovely in small doses.
To cleanse our palates, we sucked down some of Peru's beloved chicha morada, a cold, sweet and spicy soft drink made from fermented purple corn, cloves, cinnamon and fruit juice (in this case, pineapple). It was thicker than an American "ade" but full of so much more flavor than any packeted, artificial drink mix can provide. Akin to a robust cider, it could serve as a dessert beverage.