As it turns out, North County is the place to go if you're seeking Peruvian food. Q'ero in Encinitas and Café Secret in Del Mar are two options for an intimate, candlelit and upscale dining experience. But if you're looking for a more relaxed atmosphere with no diminishment in quality of food, grab a casual lunch or dinner at Panca Peruvian Rotisserie in Oceanside.
Panca is a quiet little bright spot next to a dumpy Laundromat at 1902 S. Coast Hwy. Don't judge the location by its rundown neighbors, but feel free to say you're in North Carlsbad if you're feeling snobby. The small interior is decorated with bright pictures of Machu Picchu and quirky window coverings made from wood pallets. A cheerful chalkboard lets you know that Panca has been around for less than a year; a young couple from Lima opened its doors in February 2012.
"Rotisserie" is right there in the name, so chicken is a must. Panca is not only the name of the restaurant; it's also a Peruvian red pepper used as a key flavoring for the bird that's served. Grab a quarter, half or a whole chicken and dig in. The chicken is rich, moist and incredibly flavorful. Most orders come with french fries, but these are no garden-variety mushy chips. Clearly sliced and fried in-house, each slender stick is dense and substantial, with just enough salt to make it impossible to stop snacking on them.
But I highly recommend checking out the sandwich menu, particularly if you're looking for a lunch option that's a bit more creative than your average deli or taco shop. The menu claims the "Chicharron" is a customer favorite, and it's clear why it has such a following. Pork is slow-cooked until it's soft and shredded, although the occasional crispy piece does sneak a caramelized bite or two into your mouth. The meat is piled between two slices of warm, soft ciabatta, along with a layer of thinly sliced roasted sweet potato. The colorful orange discs give sweetness, color and a bit of creamy texture. Extra zip is added by a tangle of thinly sliced red onion, pickled in lime juice and cilantro: a salsa criolla.
Slow-cooked meat is where Panca shines, evident in the "Asado" sandwich. Thin slices of beef are sandwiched with just mayo and mustard, but it doesn't need more than those creamy swipes of condiment. The meat is so tender, your teeth are barely needed.
Maybe you're saying to yourself, But are there any sort of wacky beverages I can order? I'm so glad you asked. Order up a bottle of Chicha Morada, also known as purple corn juice. Sure, it smells like the inside of a bag of Tostitos, but it's sweet and interesting and looks like somebody squeezed Grimace right into a bottle.
Peruvian cuisine is quickly becoming my absolute favorite. It's starchy, hearty, colorful and, now, thankfully, much easier to find.
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