We, the fervent food-obsessed community of San Diego, are a disparate yet kindred bunch. Most of us have day jobs unrelated to food, but we are devoted to our personal food blogs and spend our spare time posting on food forums, and a few of us actually get paid to write about what we eat. Some of us get paid a little, or a lot, or nothing at all, but the majority of us would do it for free because we are, in the very best sense, nearly fanatical about food.
Yet, although we may read each other on a regular basis to find out about the latest dining discoveries, knowing we're linked by our common passion for food, most of us have yet to share a meal together-and, really, that's sort of what food's all about.
And so, for a recent restaurant outing, I met with a group of foodie friends, old and new, to connect and chow down. It's very true that the best food is often found in the most unlikely places, so I was only a bit skeptical when I heard, through my friend Kirk's blog, about some amazing Peruvian cuisine being served in a teeny spot, only a few doors down from a tattoo shop on a busy block of Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach. Latin Chef has quickly become dear to the hearts and stomachs of local Peruvians, but the restaurant's friendly atmosphere and fresh flavors will appeal to all.
I brought along a bottle of Pisco, a South American brandy, which we mixed with ginger beer and lime and drank while we chatted about recent delicious meals and snacked on the complimentary bowl of cancha, tiny toasted corn kernels that were light and crunchy. Almost every table had ordered the cebiche, so we followed suit, and I became instantly infatuated with this Peruvian rendition of a chilled fish dish, delicately 'cooked' in a tart mixture of lemon juice, red onion, chili and cilantro. Latin Chef's version is served with creamy chunks of sweet potato and a starchy variety of Peruvian corn. The cebiche's left-over marinating liquid is known as leche de tigre (tiger's milk), and Freddie, the restaurant's tireless owner, says the bracing elixir is great as a hangover cure and an aphrodisiac. It certainly did a number on me; I've been back twice just for this dish and have found myself daydreaming about it.
Kirk and my Peruvian-born friend Raffo both had already tried most of the items on the menu, so they steered us toward some of the finest dishes. Sopa a la Criolla, a tomato soup enriched with cream and spices, comprises thin strands of pasta and savory shreds of beef, all topped with a perfectly fried egg. The Yuca a la Huancaina, crispy-crusted yucca with a gently spicy dipping sauce of yellow Peruvian chili and melted cheese, was consumed quickly. The mild yellow chili played well, too, in the Aji de Gallina, a chicken dish with a creamy, bread-thickened sauce and served with rice and salty Peruvian black olives.
Peru's capital, Lima, was recently named the gastronomic center of South America, due in part to the blend of traditional foods with aspects of European, African and Asian cuisine. The Chinese connection is evident in the soy sauce used in a sauté of beef with onions, tomato and a bit of vinegar for tang. This unique dish is topped with a pile of french-fried potatoes, which mix in with the stir-fry and soak up the savory juices. It gets my vote for best alternative use of fries (and, yes, I have had many a California burrito). In Peruvian dishes, everything is vibrantly colored, from the green of the cilantro-sauced stewed lamb to the purple sweet corn drink Chicha Morada.
There are many more fascinating dishes to try, like a Japanese-influenced version of the cebiche, Peruvian tamales, a seafood fried rice, and, when I'm feeling daring, I may try the grilled beef heart and stewed tripe.
We wrapped up our meal at Latin Chef with a shared bowl of burnt-orange-hued ice cream made with lucuma, an indigenous fruit with an elusive, slightly sweet pumpkin-pie flavor and starchy texture. Not quite ready to leave this eaters' roundtable, we mixed ourselves another Picso cocktail and got to talking about food some more.
Latin Chef is open from noon to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
Write to candicew@SDcitybeat.com.