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Peruvian perfection: Tio David’s serves traditional dishes, orginal specialties

Lomo saltado, stir-fried beef tenderloin with tomatoes and onions, is one of the classic Peruvian dishes at Tio David’s. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

Nowhere in the city is the high turnover rate in the restaurant business more evident than in Nob Hill.

Consider the short stretch on the north side of Central between Amherst and Tulane. The block’s longtime anchors, the Guild Cinema and Il Vicino, are still there, but much of the rest of the block has turned over in recent years. Pho 505, 99 Degrees Seafood Kitchen and Zacatecas are gone, and in their place stand ABQ Bite, El Camino Donuts and Tio David’s Peruvian Flavor.

The arrival of Tio David’s is particularly timely, as it coincides with the departure of another Peruvian restaurant, Pollito con Papas II. The spinoff of the busy operation near the base on Gibson closed recently after a two-year run on the other side of the street.

Tio David is David Guillermo Diaz Marini, a native of Lima, Peru, who moved to Albuquerque in 2001 and parlayed his love of cooking for family and friends into his own restaurant. The small but comprehensive menu is an ode to Peruvian food and its pungent aji peppers, purple potatoes and exotic fruits. Classic Peruvian fare such as the stir-fry dish lomo saltado shares the menu with original creations the chef developed after moving to Albuquerque.

The new place was pretty drowsy when I visited on a recent Saturday, with only one couple eating in the high-ceilinged space. There’s metered parking out front and a small, free parking lot in the back. The food was in my hands about 25 minutes after I called in my order.

Appetizers feature a couple preparations of pangasius, a large freshwater catfish native to Southeast Asia that is farmed extensively. It has a mild flavor and firm, flaky white flesh that stands up well to frying. At Tio David’s, you can get it chopped and cooked in key lime juice as part of the ceviche ($10.99) or in fried strips ($5.99) served with a side of huancaína, a traditional Peruvian ají chile cheese sauce.

Fillings for the sandwiches include roasted pork shoulder slices ($10.99), Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken ($8.99) and grilled vegetables ($7.99).

The pan con pescado at Tio David’s features battered and fried strips of pangasius fish with a tangy criolla salad. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

The pan con pescado ($10.99) consists of battered and fried strips of pangasius fish in aji chile mayonnaise and a criolla salad made with pickled onions and ají peppers. The fish, crispy-coated and non-greasy, gets an absolute charge of flavor from the criolla, and the mayonnaise registers like a spicy tartar sauce. Served in an airy homemade bun with a crisp shell, it’s a candidate for local sandwich of the year.

The influence of Chinese immigrants on Peruvian cuisine gave rise to an entire culinary tradition called Chifa. Tio David’s menu honors this tradition in dishes such as arroz chaufa ($10.99), Peruvian-style fried rice, and lomo saltado, $16.99, a stir-fry of beef and vegetables.

The latter is normally made with sirloin, but Tio David’s version includes a generous helping of beef tenderloin strips marinated in soy sauce. The beef, smoky and tender, picks up some zing from stir-fried ají chile. It looks like something you’d get at a Chinese restaurant, but the hunks of meat are bigger, the sauce thinner. It’s a good value, considering the price of tenderloin.

There’s a veggie version ($14.99) with bell peppers, mushrooms, and squash substituting for the tenderloin.

Aji chicken, a familiar comfort food in Peru, consists of shredded chicken in an aji chile sauce. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

The Peruvian comfort food aji de gallina ($14.99) traces its roots to home cooks trying to make something tasty from leftover chicken and potatoes. Tio David’s version is eye-catching, even in Styrofoam, the shredded chicken and discs of Yukon Gold potatoes in a golden sauce topped with black olives and quarters of a hard-boiled egg. With a flavor profile of chicken soup, it’s the kind of dish rice was made for.

Papas de los Incas, one of the sides at Tio David’s, are purple potatoes served with a chile-cheese sauce. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Sides include four different types of fries. The papas de los Incas ($4.99), wedges of purple potatoes served with huancaína sauce, are moister and a little less starchy than yellow potatoes. The sauce works well here to counteract the slight bitterness of the potatoes.

Dessert offers a chance to try two of Peru’s most popular fruits – guanábana and lúcuma – in shake form ($4.99). Guanábana, also known as soursop, has a sweet, slightly tart flavor that lands somewhere between a pineapple and a banana.

Lúcuma is a yellow-fleshed fruit that grows in the valleys of the Andes. Loaded with antioxidants, it’s considered a superfood, which might help assuage the guilt of quaffing something that tastes like maple syrup.

You can also try Inca Cola ($2.49), Peru’s most popular soda. Its bubblegum flavor belies a neon yellow color that calls to mind radioactive runoff.

Unpretentious and a little bit adventurous, Tio David’s is a great addition to the Nob Hill dining scene and a reminder that even in tough times, our food scene remains diverse and resilient.