Inca's serves up down-home food from way, way down south

Anyone who gazes upon this Incan mask of death will perish within a year...or maybe it’s just suburban restaurant decor.
Sara Kerens

There are a couple of things you should know before heading to Inca's, the Peruvian hangout in Carrollton. First, on a recent Friday night visit, the not-quite-dog-whistle shrieks of kids filled the dining room as three little rugrats bounced around, trying their best to drown out a live band. The combo belted out ballads from down South America way and, when the brats allowed, engaged the audience in teasing banter. At least, I think they did. I know bits of German, so I'd get along well with some old timers in Argentina, but no Spanish.

Yes, music. In Carrollton. And noisy youngsters. Some curmudgeonly types (and some parents) eat out just to avoid the third. Others probably want to avoid the other two, as well.

So, take note: On weekend nights, a band plays in this not very spacious setting. Although courteous (and quite good on my Friday night visit), the group can't help but drown conversation, as even acoustic notes bounce hard off the walls. The kids apparently belong to the owners, for they were present on all visits. On this particular Friday, they tore around the place, driven by the beat. At one point a couple of the noisy runts practiced their chair-dancing routine in the booth located directly behind me and attached to my bench seat by screws so the entire structure rocked. "We can be loud," my waitress shouted, apologetically.

Secondly, if you don't speak Spanish, be patient. For the staff and most of their customers, English is a second—perhaps even third—language. On my final visit, in fact, the waitress had to appeal for help translating my drink order. Actually she bogged down over the "what beers do you have" bit, since they were out of Cusquena, and Cristal in an A&M logo glass (yes, they stock Aggie-ware) would be too much for a literate alcoholic to bear.

Just kidding, Aggies—but I'm not sure about which part.

Now, if you think the language barrier is a good sign, you're probably right. Inca's prepares down-home-style Peruvian fare spanning the breadth of that nation's heritage—although without all the potatoes. The lowly spud originated in Peru, and some 3,000 varieties grow there, which is more than enough to refute the intelligent design myth (for who would strap us with so much bland starch?). Yes, they serve papa rellena, the staple zeppelin-shaped mashed potato stuffed with meat and deep-fried. In this case, the filling of shredded chicken mimics in timidity the mildly seasoned starch, so it desperately craves a few spoons of criolle sauce.

Instead of importing the purple, yellow, red and other spectacular potatoes produced by farmers in the country, Inca's sticks to off-beige and a plain old orange sweet variety. Indeed, they serve more yucca: boiled with posado sudado, fried alongside pork ribs, steamed as part of a cabrito stew. The latter presents more bone and gristle than meat, but it also yields a grassy, gamy funk and slick coating over the palate that causes flavors to linger. This is goat, so that's pretty much as it should be. They cook the meat slowly, and you find peppery, earthen notes buried deep within the fibers. Posado sudado is white fish of uncertain lineage, steamed so thoroughly it feels damp on the tongue. It sits in an astounding broth of tomato, onion and peppers. A roasted, acrid and fruity flavor rushes forward at the start, as complex as wine. This is followed by the earthy bitterness of root vegetables and yellow pepper. Throughout, there's a backbone of spice.

The sauce makes sodden fish worthwhile. And there's a lot otherwise to respect from this kitchen, as long as you appreciate casual, family-style cooking. For Spanish-speaking regulars, it's a taste of home, which means it doesn't have to be perfect, but it must feel like dinnertime. And so it does, especially a few nights later when the kids sit quietly, flipping through a book with Mom...or a quite young grandma.

So if, like some of us, you're getting old and crotchety (or just don't like a ruckus), try the place early in the week.

It's worth a try, if only to familiarize yourself with simply prepared Peruvian fare. Instead of arranging ceviche in a sparkling cocktail glass, they pile the marinated hunks of fish on a plate with kernels of soaked white corn, its delicate flavor and soft texture contrasting nicely with the firm flesh and intense bite of citrus and cilantro. Aji de Gallina is a classic comfort dish of shredded chicken, buttered over in a sauce of peppers and turmeric.

If anything, the kitchen shows considerable skill in their ability to balance aji—both a chili and a catch-all word for chili sauce—and other flavors. In the gallina dish, the fruity heat of a good pepper sinks under the grounded, gritty taste of turmeric and other spices. As part of their criolla dip, the flame of chili follows behind the rich sweetness of mayonnaise and sharper belt of cilantro. They also prepare a red sauce, ripe with tomato behind a strange, caramelized sensation like cola mixed with Tabasco and neatly layered to allow more room for the capsaicin to expand.

Either sauce will help with their "fried ribs." These niblets of pork are thoroughly browned yet still tender. Some of the meat's natural sweetness remains, buried so deep it seems reluctant to emerge. In its place, a dull, burnished character dominates. Boring alone, the pork relishes a dose of sauce, whether sweet and green or tart and red.

Maybe the boredom was borne from the unexpected quiet after the previous visit's stampede. Anyway, Inca's is not a place to linger on nights without live music. The booths consist of slatted wood, the chairs are worn and the whole room looks like some Ozarks diner—except instead of jackalopes, strange death masks and other South American knickknacks adorn the walls.

I suppose you can step outside. Plenty of excitement there, especially if you need pet supplies, something from Target or some chemicals for the pool—the restaurant sits in a strip mall. Yes, most restaurants in the Dallas area occupy some form of shopping center or mixed-use space, but this is a particularly frayed suburban strip. So if you're interested in staffing help from a company called Abba (I assume their slogan is "take a chance on me") or are in the mood for an impulse purchase of an empty storefront, you're all set. Really, if you've never seen this part of Carrollton, you're in for a treat. Up near the Petco, one can almost see the setting sun glinting off traffic as it curls around the ramp from Bush Freeway to Stemmons.

Oh, well. But for a few venues here and there, Carrollton is the hole in Dallas' dining doughnut. There's Amici, Agave Azul, a couple other spots and Inca's, a unique and pretty cheap little place.

I suppose that makes it a neighborhood joint without a neighborhood.

Inca’s 2662 N. Josey Lane, Carrollton, 972-323-4968. Open Monday 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Tuesday 11 a.m.-midnight, Wednesday 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday noon-8 p.m.

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Inca's Cafe

2662 N. Josey Lanene
Carrollton, TX 75007


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