Peru is really making its mark on the culinary map. Three restaurants in the capital city of Lima made The World's 50 Best Restaurants list this year, and dishes like ceviche, lomo saltado, chupe and causa are popping up at popular mainstream eateries.
But when I suggest a Peruvian place for a friends' night out, I am often met with an open-minded but blank stare, or with an enthusiastic endorsement of Mexican favorites like tamales, enchiladas and guacamole.
Peruvian cuisine incorporates fresh seafood from its 1,500-mile coast, corn from its immense flatlands and an estimated 3,000 varieties of potato harvested from the highlands of the Andes. The country's colonial immigrants introduced a wide range of flavors from Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, African, Creole, indigenous and Amazonian roots that have worked their way into what are now traditional dishes. Ceviche, for example, is derived from the indigenous Quechua word for fresh fish. Tallarin, linguine-like pasta used in numerous fish dishes, is influenced by Italian immigrants. And lomo saltado, the country's trademark meat specialty, emerged from the wok-cooking style of Chinese settlers.
For more than 20 years, Estampas Peruanas, an understated storefront restaurant on El Camino Real in Redwood City, has offered traditional home-style Peruvian cuisine in large portions: filling stews, lots of meat and potatoes, big bowls of soup and generous helpings of fish and seafood dishes. Decor is home-style, too, with larger-than-life paintings of Andean scenes and carved folk art coupled with flat-screen TVs apparently set permanently to soccer games. The open dining room holds widely spaced tables set with maroon and white tablecloths and simple white dishware.
Diners are welcomed with baskets of soft bread and complimentary samples of hominy and a piquant dipping sauce made of puréed jalapeño and feta cheese. We started one meal with an appetizer of anticuchos ($9.95), skewers of sliced beef heart marinated in a medley of vinegar, cumin and other sharp spices and seared quickly over the grill. Rich, smoky and cooked perfectly (beef heart gets tough and chewy when even slightly overcooked), the plate came with a garnish of sweet, chewy large-kernel corn known as choclo.
Servings are more than generous, so be ready for leftovers when you order. Aguadito de mariscos ($15.95) was a cauldron of deeply flavored fish stock loaded with seafood, potatoes and carrots, made fragrant with cilantro, chili and white wine. Picante de mariscos ($15.95) smothered a mound of mussels, shrimp, clams and calamari with a terrific creamy chili sauce. A side of innocuous white rice was the perfect foil for sopping up as much of the rich sauce as possible once all the shells were emptied.
A weekday lunch special ($9.75) included a bowl of savory homemade soup brimming with chicken and vegetables, which was enough for a meal on its own. The main course was slow-cooked beef in a thick cilantro sauce served with beans, white rice and shredded onion slaw.
Ceviche mixta ($14.95) seemed slightly flat in comparison: a bit skimpy for the price, overly salty and heaped with slivers of red onion in a tart citrus marinade. The dish was accompanied by a pair of thick slices of cooked white potato and sweet potato, a chunk of choclo on the cob and crunchy corn nuts called concha, all intended to cut the tart bite of the ceviche. Though the seafood was fresh and the plate visually attractive, the ceviche lacked complexity and subtlety.
Desserts include traditional South American treats like flan, alfajores (dulce de leche sandwiched between sugared shortbread cookies) and picarones (sweet potato donuts). Beverages range from a bare-bones beer and wine list to fruit juices, sodas and Peruvian favorites like Inka Cola and chicha morada, a sweet drink made of spiced purple corn.
Service is friendly but perfunctory. While questions about menu items were answered patiently, plates were not timed properly and empty water glasses remained unfilled.
For a hearty, home-style taste of Peru, Estampas Peruanas is the real deal. Food and drinks are authentic, prices are reasonable and servings are substantial. But somehow I left feeling like the dishes could be zippier and that the restaurant could show a bit more passion.
715 El Camino Real, Redwood City
Hours: Daily, 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Breakfast, Saturday-Sunday, 9-11:30 a.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Outdoor seating: No
Parking: Street, nearby lots
Alcohol: Beer and wine
Happy Hour: No
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise level: Low
Bathroom cleanliness: Excellent