Story and Photos by Jeff Kronenfeld, November 2019 Issue.
If you can’t visit the ruin-crowned mountains or penguin-studded coasts of South America anytime soon, then a trip to Los Andes Peruvian Cuisine on Phoenix’s westside is the next best thing. It’s easy to miss the little restaurant hidden in a nondescript strip mall off the I-17. Once your meal arrives, there’s no missing the explosion of yellows, oranges, and purples. Chef Oscar Graham continues transporting taste buds to Peru at Los Andes, as he did at Tumi Fine Peruvian Restaurant in Chandler before selling it last year. His decades of experience as a chef in places like Lima, New York, and California are evident. Despite the big menu, every item we tried masterfully commingled flavors both far-out and familiar.
Don’t let the faded stucco exterior fool you. Inside, the food is as beautifully presented as it is mouth-watering. The decor is simple yet brimming with pride for the Andean nation it represents. A red and white flag hangs behind the register. Colorful tablecloths and a picture of Machu Picchu round out the decor. Graham ensures the full width and breadth of Peru’s unique gastronomic tradition are on tap. Peruvian food fuses local ingredients with African, Chinese, Spanish and other influences. Our party of four was only able to scratch the surface of the encyclopedic menu.
Affordable prices and a huge menu make this an ideal location for family-style dining. The friendly staff are quick to offer suggestions or answer questions. Instead of chips and salsa, tables get Concha, partially popped corn kernels. For refreshments, Los Andes offers Inca Kola, passion fruit juice and chicha morada. The passion fruit beverage, called maracuyá juice, was tangy, sweet and a little like a low-carbon footprint Capri Sun. Chicha morada is a drink made from purple corn. It was semi-sweet with a hint of spice, almost like a sweet mulled wine on ice. I suggest starting out with a pitcher of the dark violet refreshment, which will only set you back $7.50. One was more than enough to quench our thirsty quartet through the feast to come.
The appetizer section is almost a menu to itself. According to “Potato: A Global History” by Andrew F. Smith, the common potato was first domesticated near the Lake Titicaca basin. Peru is still a hotbed of spud genetic diversity, as well as tasty ways to prepare them. In honor of this venerable history, we ordered papa rellenas. These fried potatoes — similar to croquettes — are stuffed with ground beef loin, eggs, olives, onions and raisins. The exterior was more like the flaky crust of a pie than the plasticized skin of fries. Beneath this was a mantle of doughy potato goodness. The tater innards seemed lighter the closer they approached to the puréed meatball core. A pile of finely shredded pickled onions and yellow pepper sauce comes on the side.
We also sampled the yuca frita con huancaina, large yuca fries with a side of yellow sauce. The sauce blends cheese with aji amarillo, a bright yellow pepper popular in Peru. It tastes somewhat like queso, but with a subtler and more complex flavor. This golden dip is best described with a long series of ems. Yuca, also known as cassava, is a South American tuber. Don’t confuse it with the spikey local desert shrub yucca. Served in large deep-fried wedges, it was fibrous with a light crunch. There were many appetizers we couldn’t try on this visit, such as the anticuchos. Skewered like shish kebabs, this dish was popular even before Europeans arrived in the region. Once made with llama meat, Los Andes opts for the grilled beef heart variety. We left the appetizers section partially explored to save room for our impending seafood blowout.
In Peru, raw fish marinated in citrus juice is serious business. The country even celebrates ceviche with a national holiday. Los Andes gives the dish its own section on the menu. Our party ordered the orgía de mariscos, literally meaning seafood orgy. It proved every bit the interspecies cuddle puddle, full of white fish, shrimp, scallops, calamari, octopus, and mussel. In traditional fashion, it’s served with Peruvian corn, fried plantains and yams. The sea creatures almost seemed to come back to life in the pool of lime juice, Pisco brandy, rocoto peppers and other spices.
From the seafood section proper, we ordered pescado a lo macho. The large boneless fish filet came submerged in a bright orange seafood sauce. Calamari, shrimp, scallops and octopus added zest and texture. A rice pyramid, mussel and yuca fries came as sides. One of our party thought it was so good she didn’t want to try anything else. Despite this declaration, we managed to convince her to taste the next two entrees when they arrived.
Peruvian fried rice, arroz chaufa in Spanish, is another of the nation’s staples. People from China came to Peru in large numbers during the 1800s. They combined their traditional cuisine with local tastes. Our order of chaufa de pollo, chicken fried rice, was huge and made great leftovers the next day. The use of Peruvian ingredients and spices adds a unique spin to this familiar comfort food. This would be the perfect dish for a finicky child or manbaby.
The last course was only for the more adventurous palettes. Called cau cau, it consists of honeycomb beef tripe, cubed potatoes, mint mignonette, and rice. The turmeric and pepper sauce was reminiscent of a yellow curry. The tripe melted into fatty oils as you chewed, rounding out the spicy flavor. The tripe was a little too rubbery for my taste, though another in our party couldn’t get enough of the cow stomach lining. Even with four entrees, we still missed out on several interesting dishes. There are rotisserie chickens marinated in the South American equivalent of Colonel Sanders secret spice blend and a half-dozen varieties of linguine.
Los Andes offers a number of unique dessert options all for under six bucks. There are picarones, Peruvian donuts drizzled in molasses syrup. Often they’re made with sweet potato and squash, though we didn’t get to find out. Guts bulging, we ordered but one dessert, also passing on the Peruvian ice cream and sweet biscuits joined with milk caramel. Our decision to go for the crema volteada, Peruvian flan, didn’t disappoint. It was soft, light and rich all at once. Still, ever the neurotic, I wonder if I should have tried the donuts. The obvious solution to this FOMO is a second trip, which is already scheduled. Los Andes offers gourmet food in large portions at a low price point. This, plus its unaffected charm, makes it a true hidden gem.