My colleague Francois helped turn me on to Peruvian food during a visit to Montreal a couple years ago. (Click here to see the entry on that experience.) He lived in Peru for about six years working for the Peace Corps when he was in his 20's. During the CEDIA Expo held earlier this year in Denver, Francois discovered a Peruvian restaurant that was literally around the corner from our hotel - Los Cabos II. One night for dinner, our large group went there to give the place a try.
Peruvian food is a rustic cuisine where people use what the land and sea will give them. There are four distinct areas in Peru that dictates the cuisine - sea, coastal, mountains, and the jungle. Peruvian chefs point to four different continents that have influenced their choice in food over the centuries. There's the indigenous foods that were grown in the Andes mountains, a Spanish influence from European settlers, food recipes that were brought over from Africa by black workers in the 1800's, and an Asian influence from Chinese and Japanese settlers.
Beans, corn, potatoes and quinoa are the four basic staples of Peruvian food with seafood, beef and grilled chicken as the three main choices with many people in the country. Aji peppers is the key to Peruvian cuisine - they're only available in Peru and are virtually unknown outside of the country. Many Peruvian dishes are made with fresh spices and herbs that are grown in Peru specifically for their recipes.
In the early 80's, Francesca Ruiz immigrated to the U.S. from her hometown of Lima, Peru to find a better way of life. Discovering a growing Peruvian immigrant population in Colorado, she and her husband, Hernan, opened the first Los Cabos in Denver in 1988. Getting authentic Peruvian peppers and spices turned out to be a pretty tricky proposition. But thanks to a fair trade agreement between the U.S. and Peru that was signed a little over five years ago, the Ruiz's can now get authentic Peruvian peppers, herbs and spices through distributors in Miami and Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy VivaColorado.com)
As I said, Los Cabos II was just around the corner from our hotel in Denver on Champas St. just south of the 16th St. Mall. (see map) It was around 7 p.m. when we got into Los Cabos II. (I don't know what ever happened to Los Cabos I.) The place was dimly lit and sort of dreary at first glance. But Peruvian artwork as well as a large stuffed llama next to the bar helped liven the place up a bit. There were only a couple tables in use when we were seated.
Francois called ahead and told them that 12 of us would be showing up. At first, he was worried that they wouldn't be able to handle all of us at once and he would just order up some of their entrees for the table to try. But he was told that, yes, the kitchen would allow for each of us to order our own entrees.
The menu at Los Cabos II is evident of the multi-ethnicity of Peruvian food. Tallarin Saltado is a Peruvian version of Chinese lo Mein with either beef or chicken. Spanish Paella with rice, seafood, chicken and chorizo sausage was on the menu. Parihuela is a Peruvian soup with octopus, white fish, clams and squid cooked in a spicy white wine sauce and a bay laurel broth.
We all turned to Francois to help us navigate through the menu and he did a good job of explaining most of the dishes to us. But first of all, drinks had to be ordered. Wine, some frozen Peruvian-style drinks and the Peruvian beer Cusqueña were ordered up by various people at the table. The problem started when we figured out that the guy taking the orders at the table was also the bartender. It took nearly 15 minutes for me to get a beer. That did not bode well for the remainder of the meal.
After appetizers of excellent ceviche (a mixture of lime marinated seafood topped with cilantro and a dash of spicy aji pepper flakes) and fried calimari, it was time to order up the food for the main course. The most popular item on the menu is the Lomo Saltado - seasoned strips of beef sauteed with tomatoes, onions, potatoes, red and green pepper that came with rice. I ended up ordering that.
Service was choppy all evening long and the entrees came out at staggered time. My boss and one of my colleagues decided to share the paella - a large plate of rice with a mixture of calimari, shrimp and white fish with peppers and fresh herbs. I believe it also had a little bit of chorizo with the paella, if I'm not mistaken. They both said it was very good.
Francois was seated next to me and he got Chupa de Camarones - a Peruvian shrimp chowder with milk broth, rice, boiled egg, onions and potatoes and seasoned with garlic, paprika and oregano. He gave me a bite of it and it was quite good.
In fact, I wish I would have gotten the Chupa de Camarones. Everyone else at the table was served - some much sooner than others - including a couple three guys who also ordered the Lomo Saltado. As everyone was eating, I was sitting there patiently waiting for my food. Well, after about 10 minutes after the first dish and came to the table and everyone had been served their entrees I was no longer patiently waiting for my food.
It was getting to the critical point where I just about got up and walked out - others at the table were apologizing for eating in front of me. Finally, with most of the meals at the table well more than half-way eaten, my Lomo Saltado came to me with nary an apology from the server. It was a colorful display of beef, tomatoes, potatoes, green and red peppers and fresh herbs. The rice was formed into the shape of a small volcano. While it looked promising, it was far from that. The beef was severely overcooked and very tough to chew. The vegetables were limp and lifeless. It was like they put the dish on the stove and forgot about it. I was highly disappointed.
Francois needlessly apologized for my debacle as everyone else said that they liked their meals. But mine was a disaster. I have to give the server a bit of a pass as I've experienced tough conditions in the past with a guy trying to serve a large group. The only problem was that it appeared that they only had one server to take care of a restaurant that was about half full by the time we finished our meal. My colleagues may say different, but I was thoroughly disappointed with my meal and the level of service we received at Los Cabos II. The experience was a debacle from the moment I sat down.