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.
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.
Entrees fared reasonably well, but in no way held up to the three impressive starters. The traditional lomo saltado was a fine stir-fry dish of lean beef, onions, potatoes and garlic sautéed and served with French fries and rice (gotta love the ubiquitous starch—Peruvian recipes fit in quite well here in the land of meat-and-potatoes and take-out Chinese). The soy-sauced gravy seeped down into the rice and extra French fries and made for some good sopping once the veggies and meat were devoured.
The Chinese influence was again apparent in the arroz chaufa, or "Peruvian Chinese-style fried rice." The sodium was high, and the grease was prime...and it was good. Not worth replacing delivery with a drive to Irving, mind you, but good.
Bisteck a lo pobre proved to be an exercise in restraint. My dining mate received a thin peppered steak and two fried eggs (one hard, one medium) atop the expected Ore-Idas. It was clearly difficult for him to keep from downing the entire steak before I even made a dent in my lomo saltado. I understood why. Not only was the steak exceptionally tender and juicy despite its thinness, but with the egg yolk turning into a rich glaze on top, the dish was elevated to a savory plain much higher than the Andes' peak of Huascarán.
Our other diner opted for another Latin classic: arroz con pollo. Her dish arrived with sautéed chicken laid out on top of the greenest rice I've ever laid eyes upon. The rice itself was green, as were peas and the little bits of cilantro. A visual shocker, sure, but in flavor it ventured over to the mild side. Our heat-loving cohort had to kick up the spice with some of the house's powerful red sauce.
After all the anticipation, stumbling over language, shrill flute music coming from the speakers and taste-testing, El Tumi didn't provide a scary, anxiety-inducing adventure, but one of more comfortable elements all wrapped up, stir-fried or sautéed. Sure, things were lost in translation, but perhaps for the better. There's a little piece of Peru sitting on Story Road in Irving, and it's ours for the examination. And as long as you can at least point to a menu to order, there's nothing to worry about. Well, except maybe those anticuchos. But when it comes to exploring, you have to let go of your native tongue...and you gotta have heart.
2430 N. Story Road, Irving, 972-252-8713. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. $$
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