Machu Picchu is best known for its buildings carved out of natural stone. Machu Picchu the restaurant, however, doesn't convey this same kind of timeless mystery. Tucked in a strip mall, it has green indoor-outdoor carpet, wood-panel and black vinyl upholstered booths, and lots of neon beer signs dotting the soffits. There are also assorted flutes, hats, and a guitar hanging from the wall. The haunting music of those flutes seeped from the sound system, though it seemed to get stuck on a Peruvian version of "Dust in the Wind."
But perhaps what was most distracting was the sonic blur of Spanish-language soaps from a TV parked above one of the booths. It swamped the contemplative flutes with the percussive sparring of love-triangle participants.
Which is why you'll want to dive straight into the food. Peruvian cuisine is an odd mutt -- a culinary cur merged, meddled, and mixed over time by a host of cultural influences of peoples that passed through the country. Native foods such as corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and hot peppers were blended with beef, puddings, and certain pastas from Spanish invaders. Africans, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, and French put their stamp on the food.
The results can be startlingly good. Mazamorra morada ($2.50), like a fruit pudding made of purple corn and dried fruits and spiced with a little clove, was tartly sweet and smooth. At the other end of the meal, Machu Picchu offers a variety of ceviches as appetizers rendered from flounder, sea bass, and other sea creatures. Ceviche mixto ($8.90) was brisk with ample chunks of octopus and calamari jumbled with onion, tomato, cilantro, and lemon juice.
Crafted in a ceviche vein, choros a la chalaca ($5.90) was astounding. Mussel flesh -- cooked, chopped, and parked in the shell -- was heaped with a scattering of diced onion, tomato, cilantro, and peas. The lemon-surged mayhem was deliciously briny, chewy, and bracing.
The filete de corvina ($9.90) was confusing, however. Described on the menu as a sea bass fillet in onions and garlic, the flaky, moist fish was riddled with bones and possessed a distinctly muddy taste that seemed suspiciously like catfish. Plus, a potent essence of garlic was absent.
Lomito saltado ($7.90), a stir-fry beef dish with onions, tomatoes, and cilantro, was cramped with pieces of juicy, slightly sweet beef. But the conglomeration was inexplicably piled over a tumble of steak fries, which turned the spud planks into soggy pulp.
Tacu Tacu bistec ($7.90), paper-thin ripped steak, was well-seasoned and juicy. You could see the bottom indentation of the bowl used to form the moist and hearty mound of rice and beans plopped on the plate.
Chicharrones de pollo ($7.90), or fried chicken, was little more than McNuggets served with steak fries, albeit plumper and with a crisper sheath.
To wash down your Peruvian meal, try a bottle of Cusqueña ($3), a Peruvian brew that's light and quenching, though not at all complex.
Machu Picchu may not have the mystery of the ancient city, but it has plenty of culinary mystery worth plumbing. Plus it's fun to attempt to figure out who's on top in the soapy love triangulation on the tube.