March 4, 2008
by Howard Seftel (Republic restaurant critic)
When it comes to food, Peru has it all. Check the geography: the long coast, the Andes Mountains and tropical jungle furnish a remarkable range of ingredients. And check the culture: Incan, mestizo and Spanish influences bring complexity, sophistication and excitement to the table.
Those qualities are on display at La Roca, where the Arriola family (which once ran another Peruvian restaurant, Peruanitos, now closed) provides a friendly welcome. Brothers Mario and Rigo run the business, Dad helps out in the kitchen, and Mom does the cooking. She knows what she's doing, and she'll be here until the end of the year. (She's currently training her successor.)
Peruvian food is hearty, flavorful and intriguingly spiced (but not spicy-hot). You'll notice all of those elements in the national dish, papas a la Huancaina ($3.95), a pre-Columbian preparation of boiled potatoes in a creamy cheese sauce seasoned with aji, an aromatic native chile with a faint bite. If you are looking to start off your meal with a carbohydrate wallop, this is your appetizer. And unless you want your main dish put directly into a doggie bag, you are advised to share it.
That's true, too, for another wonderful starter, halibut ceviche ($8.29). Like other Latin Americans, Peruvians have long known the joys of "cooking" raw fish in lime juice. This ceviche, teamed with red onions, is tart enough to make your hair curl, and it comes with corn on the cob and a hunk of luscious sweet potato.
If you order the creamy shrimp soup ($7.25), you can pretty much call it a night. It's outstanding: a meal in a giant bowl, just right on a cool Valley evening, heavily stocked with rice, potatoes, peas, carrots, hard-boiled egg and tasty little shrimp. Like everything else here, it's beguilingly seasoned.
There isn't a main dish I wouldn't go back for. Pork, chicken, lamb, seafood - La Roca hits the target, while going very easy on your wallet.
The most expensive dish is jalea ($12.89), the Peruvian version of a fish fry. It's way better than those "fisherman's platters" at most American seafood restaurants. We're talking moist slabs of freshly breaded cod, along with squid, octopus, mussels and shrimp, served with yucca and fried plantains. Just about as good is the off-the-menu arroz con mariscos ($10.50), a heaping mix of rice and seafood.
Unlike many other South Americans, Peruvians don't gnaw on huge joints of meat. Instead, meat is generally cut into small pieces or shredded, and served in rich sauces over rice. La Roca does a praiseworthy job with everything.
That's especially true of the adobo de chancho ($8.99), tender, slowly cooked pork in a fascinating sauce with a tart edge. Carapulcra ($8.29), meanwhile, brings together pork and Peruvian dried potato in a light peanut sauce. The first bite tells you it's different. The second bite assures you it's tasty.
Aji de gallina ($8.79) is Peru's signature chicken dish, and it's easy to see why. Shredded chicken comes in a mild aji cream sauce that's somehow also full of nuance. And let's salute the kitchen for trimming the fat from the lamb ($10.79), which is stewed in a robust, stick-to-your-ribs sauce.
Stay native with a side dish of cancha ($1.49), deliciously crunchy toasted corn kernels; a glass of chicha morada ($1.29), a refreshing, offbeat beverage made from purple corn; and ice cream ($4.49) made from lucuma, a Peruvian fruit with a unique, captivating flavor.
La Roca tries hard to look nicer than a typical retail-strip ethnic storefront. The tables are set with red tablecloths under clear plastic, and the walls are painted with pleasing geometric patterns. It's no ethnic shack.
A final note: La Roca calls itself a "Mexican-Peruvian Grill." About half the menu consists of burritos, tacos and enchiladas because the Arriolas realize the perils of trying to survive in Mesa on their homeland fare alone.
So you sit down to a very un-Peruvian basket of chips and salsa - and the salsa is terrific. Is it the work of the Mexican cook learning from Mom? If it is, La Roca should remain in good hands.
Darwin’s Waiting Room Bar & Grill3623 East Indian School Road
Phoenix, AZ 85018 602-952-6744