Strip malls dominate the United States like white stripes on its flag. They can seem tedious, yet in them are businesses that people drive to and in which they find what they need for their lives.
In one such, in between a Starbucks and a Del Taco in Costa Mesa, California, I found Inka Grill, a Peruvian eatery with an interesting story and intriguing food.
I got there just after noon on a Thursday and there was no place to park. The restaurant bustled.
Not finding parking is the hand of death for a restaurant visit in Southern California, but I went on down the street into a subdivision, found a spot under a tree, did some work, and returned. Someone was kind enough to be leaving just as I arrived.
From accent to dress, the woman who welcomed me could have been right out of the Jockey Plaza Mall in Lima. She is not the kind of Peruvian you would associate with Inka, especially spelled with a k.
I mused how Incas—whose name when spelled with a q means reproductive energy and power of creation—have become a marketing meme for a country and its cuisine, rather than the Sons and Daughters of the Sun they were. The restaurant drew me from my pedantic rumination.
The restaurant’s signs shout that you should try their rotisserie chicken, pollo a la brasa, as does the menu. Though the most popular food in Peru, the people around me had not ordered it. Instead, almost to the person, they ate one version or another of the classic saltado, whether from beef, chicken, or a mixture of meats and sea foods.
This latter pleased me. It is creative and yet a common variation on a theme from Peru where menus often offer one thing, then another, and then they give “mixto”, both together.
Menus can be intriguing. On the front the Inka one offered rotisserie chicken and on the back basic Peruvian foods you can take home for your cooking.
One of them caught my attention, the Gringo Killer hot sauce. It made me laugh with its macho oneupmanship daring gringos to show they really can eat Peruvian peppers. These are not your neighborhood jalapeños, that is for sure.
I did not order that Gringo killing sauce but I did immediately try the green sauce brought out in a squeezable bottle to my table with a small loaf of bread. It was a whitish lime green and was hot. I loved its creaminess, the hint of cilantro and cheese, as well as the sharp and bitter pepper. It was good and I can imagine how wonderful it would taste against the smoky crispness of a 1/4 chicken grilled on a rotating spit.
Something else caught my attention. The restaurant claims the cooking of a line of women from a fishing village on the north coast of Peru: Juanita, Fortunata, and Ana. It offers standard creole cuisine with a touch of family and one of whimsy, a double splash of that biting green sauce.
Matrilineage is strong here. The first woman of the Incas, Mama Ocllo, appears on the menu as a stir fry of chicken or beef, with carrot shoots, scallions, and roasted garlic in a guajillo chile sauce.
What? Guajillo chile? That is not Peruvian. It is bright and mild, but it is one of the classic Mexican hot peppers used far and wide, even if it is mostly grown in China or, wait, Peru. This dish fuses all that.
Ana claims a pot of clams and an Italian Peruvian shrimp scampi. Her grandmother, Juanita, a classic cilantro sauced stew, a seco, from the north. Fortunata, the woman in the middle, offers a sea food stew (a parihuela). While the children explore outwards from the family into the immigrant traditions of Peru in their named dishes, the grandmother and great grandmother ground them in place and tradition.
That place is Chimbote the site of one of Peru’s great fishing industries and a cross roads of the north. In its honor they offer a braised beef with potatoes and white rice.
But there is more. It turns out the family is Japanese Peruvian. On the menu you find a yasuke fish, pieces of fish cooked in a soy-ginger sauce and served with fried rice. And, there is the family favorite which keeps their mother’s last name. It is Kishihara Chicken.
The menu was full and a fun read, but this dish demanded I order it. It is simply not something you find in every strip mall Peruvian restaurant. So I asked for it, with scents and images in my mind of the fish meal plants of Perú’s north as well as a modest family dinner in a Peruvian Japanese family that may have included an Italian or two.
The dish came, a stir fry of delicate and tender chicken with lightly cooked slices of cucumber, served in a soy ginger-based gravy with beautifully fried rice on the side.
Though the last name is Japanese, this dish seemed to harken more to fusions with the Peruvian Chinese tradition, but who knows. The cucumber was cooked and yet bright green and sharp, cutting through the gravy and enhancing the very delicate chicken. I enjoyed each bite, its taste and mystery.
I felt I got to leave the strip mall and go to Chimbote to eat in that family home. Even though the wood smoked stove is probably long gone, I still felt the presence of those three generations of women fusing the many traditions passing through Chimbote and through their family, now in California.
It was a wonderful, if too brief, visit.