Natural Wonder: Machu Picchu

Peruvian cuisine is hot.

And I’m not referring to the fiery little yellow peppers that show up in the chicken tamales or the blazing red dipping sauce known as rocoto.

Last year, Bon Appetit dubbed the food of this Latin American nation the next big thing. Though still relatively unknown in this country, there’s a growing and enthusiastic audience for Peruvian cooking. And now Clevelanders can find out firsthand what’s got everyone warm under the collar.

Machu Picchu, the city’s only Peruvian restaurant, opened downtown this summer. According to friends of mine who’ve spent time in Peru, owner Eryka Accordino and her aunt Medalit Alejandro, a professional chef, are serving up the real thing.

Accordino, who was born in Lima, describes it as “simple homestyle food.”

“We use traditional ingredients, importing herbs, spices and other products we can’t get here,” she says, “so our dishes taste just like what you’d eat there in neighborhood restaurants and at people’s tables.”

The experience begins with a complimentary bowl of cancha that arrives shortly after you do. The king-size corn kernels, sauteed in olive oil, are crunchy, salty and addictive, the perfect foil for the sweet signature drinks that come from the bar.
The pisco sour ($7) is a frothy blend of Peruvian grape brandy and lime juice. The cinnamon-rimmed Inca-tini ($9) also features pisco, this time mixed with Inca Kola, a yellow soda with a taste reminiscent of Bazooka bubble gum. On one visit the friendly bartender came to our table to ask if we liked our drinks and invited us to stop by after dinner to try some others he pours. Be forewarned, prices for cocktails are not posted on the list. If cost matters, ask before you order.

The 10 appetizers are all so appealing it’s tempting to dine small-plate style and order a few. Try chicken causa, a stacked torte made with cold potatoes, poultry and mayonnaise ($5.25); papa rellena, a deep-fried fistful of mashed potatoes stuffed with ground beef, onions, raisins, eggs and olives ($5.75); and beef anticuchus — skewered and grilled slices of butt roast served with yucca and oniony hot sauce ($8.25).

Beef anticuchus are traditionally made with beef heart, but Accordino and her aunt decided on the substitution because most Americans are squeamish about eating organ meats. To sample the more traditional preparation, call ahead and request it.

Another great starter is a big bowl of chupe de camarones (shrimp chowder, $8.75). The milky broth is studded with whole shrimp, pieces of potato, carrot slices, corn and peas. It’s mild, mellow and utterly satisfying.

Move on to a platter of ceviche de pescado ($13). A sort of Latin spin on sushi, the dish features raw talapia marinated in lime juice and spices. The acid breaks down the proteins just as cooking would, and the result is small, opaque chunks of fish that are firm, sweet and flavorful.

Marinating is also the secret ingredient in pollo a la brassa. This is hands-down the best rotisserie chicken I’ve ever eaten. The skin is crisp and wonderfully spiced, and the meat is astonishingly moist. Although you can order a quarter chicken ($8) or a half ($10), I recommend going for the whole bird ($16), and taking leftovers home, because it’s as just as good a day later. The dish gets some extra punch from the two accompanying dipping sauces, one made from yellow peppers and the other a green one made from an herb called huacatay that has a taste somewhere between parsley and cilantro. 
Another standout is the jalea, a mix of lightly breaded and fried seafood that includes shrimp, calamari and tilapia ($14). Paired on the fork with some salsa criolla — red onions soaked in lime juice — it yields a mouthful of goodness.

The asado de carne con purée ($13.25) was disappointing. Described as slow-roasted beef, the meat tasted like plain old pot roast and not a particularly well executed one at that. The saving grace was the purée of yellow potatoes that accompanied it. Like baby food for adults, it was pure comfort, and so good I was left pining for more.

Oddly for Americans, the dish also includes rice, as do many others here. Apparently Peruvians believe you can never have too many carbohydrates.

In lomo saltado ($12.25), strips of beef are stir-fried with peppers, onions and tomatoes, tossed with french fries, and served with rice. In the vegetarian locro ($8.25), squash puree and diced potatoes topped with a mild white cheese are served atop white rice with a hunk of Peruvian corn on the cob. The corn, which appears in almost everything, is starchier than what we’re used to eating, and the pumped-up kernels suggest maize on steroids.

Accordino moved to Cleveland with her parents when she was 5, learning the ins and outs of the food-service business working for Restaurant Associates. Professionally savvy and sensitive to American preferences, she decided to launch the restaurant with a menu that’s relatively small compared to the variety that characterizes Peruvian culinary culture.

The country, she explains, is divided into three main regions — coastal, jungle and mountains. Each has its own indigenous foods and preparation styles, and these in turn have been influenced by invaders and immigrants, most notably the Spanish, people from Africa and the Chinese who came to build the railroads.

“We started with dishes that we thought would be most appealing to Americans,” says Accordino, “to attract customers and get ourselves established. Over time, we hope to add more, and more unusual things.”

The lunch and dinner menus are the same, with larger portions and higher prices after 5 p.m. But a meal here is a bargain any time, even with the cost of parking downtown.

It takes a little insider knowledge to find the place. Located in the City Club Building, the restaurant has one entrance at the back of the first floor lobby and a second off the alley that runs between Euclid and Prospect. A parking garage is located adjacent to the alley, with entrances on both streets.

Peruvian cuisine may be trendsetting, but everything else about this place is the opposite of trendy. The space is large, harshly lit, largely undecorated and bordering on dowdy with bare walls and heavy, worn, out-of-date furnishings left over from the days when this was The Pewter Mug.

In any case, don’t come for the décor or the ambience. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a visit. Named after one of the seven wonders of the world and the country’s most famous destination, Machu Picchu Restaurante offers a unique, memorable and genuinely satisfying dining experience.

Machu Picchu Restaurante, 850 Euclid Ave., City Club Building, (216) 664-9712, Lunch: Tue-Fri 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Tue-Sat 5 - 10 p.m. Major credit cards accepted.

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