SANTA FE, N.M. — Santa Fe has about as many ethnic or other-culture restaurants as you’d expect for a small city, and its famous chefs offer up exotica, as well. We can sample Japanese and Thai, French and Italian, Indian and Chinese, as well as various styles of Mexican cuisine. Every now and then, something even more unusual shows up.
Most recently, a Peruvian café has opened up in DeVargas Center mall to broaden our horizons. Peru means potatoes – Europe acquired its staple starch from the Andes at the dawn of the Age of Discovery. But what the French, the Germans and the Irish subsequently did with potatoes turned out differently from the original potato menu, or so you would conclude from the dishes offered at Sabor Peruano.
Mashed potatoes, for example, appear here as stuffing for a deep-fried potato skin – nothing strange to the Euro-centric palate there. But Peru’s version includes olives and raisins in that stuffing.
Another appetizer, the causa rellena limena ($12 for the non-vegetarian version) included cold Yukon gold potato slices layered with chicken, mayonnaise and avocado, all flavored with lime. Unfamiliar, but very tasty.
Also from the appetizer list, we sampled chicken and cheese-and-spinach stuffed empanadas ($9). Both were excellent: small pastry pouches crisply deep-fried, enclosing simple fillings. We favored the cheese and spinach combo, made with a bland queso blanco and fresh spinach leaves.
Judging from Sabor Peruano’s menu, which includes only two selections in the “main course” category, Peruvian cuisine follows the non-European lead of many other countries and emphasizes many smaller dishes over a few larger presentations. We did try one of the main dish offerings, the aji de gallina (chicken in spicy sauce, $12). It was very nice: very finely shredded chicken breast in a savory but not spicy-hot yellow-pepper and peanut sauce. Served over layered Yukon gold potatoes, it arrived garnished with sliced hard-boiled egg and olives, and accompanied by a mound of rice.
The other main dish offering, lomo saltado, arrived at a neighboring table and looked excellent, as well: tenderloin beef, sliced and stir-fried with tomatoes, peppers and onions and, of course, potatoes.
My guest also tried one of Sabor Peruano’s three soups, the aguadito de pollo ($6 for a cup). It got “best of show” marks: laden with shredded chicken, peas, carrots and corn, as well as potato chunks and a little rice, the savory broth was colored bright green with pureed cilantro. The cilantro made the dish, we thought, raising an otherwise good, but bland, chicken soup to a more exotic level.
Sabor Peruano’s dessert list is as lengthy as its main course list is short. From the seven choices, ranging from flan and Peru’s version of shortbread, we selected the “mazamora morada,” or purple-corn pudding ($4). We expected something along the lines of our own Indian pudding, a Colonial-era sweet cornmeal mush now nearly disappeared from our collective table.
What we got was far more interesting. It was a kind of purple gelatin, given a fuller body by the cornmeal and colored a deep, delicious purple not just by the corn, but also by the berries (blackberries or blueberries, we judged) mixed in. Served cold, with a dollop of whipped cream, it was a very nice finish to our meal.
Sabor Peruano is a very informal, order-at-the-counter place, with plenty of tables both inside and outside in the broad hallway in the interior of DeVargas Center. We sat inside, enjoying the brightly colored walls and the examples of Peruvian native weavings. Outside, we would have been content to people-watch among the potted palms and store displays.