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Quest for the True Peru 

Fresca

Wednesday, Jan 31 2001
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Though my experience with the subject is decidedly limited, Peruvians may be the pickiest eaters on Earth. For example, the first time I reviewed a Peruvian restaurant, it was at the recommendation of a Peruvian friend, who later told me she thought the place was quite terrible. (My take: It could have been better, but was still worthwhile.) In fact, this friend said, there are no decent Peruvian restaurants anywhere in San Francisco, a claim she punctuated with a lengthy description of her father's infinitely elaborate, supposedly incomparable seviche, which can take days -- if not weeks -- to prepare. More recently, after I reviewed a very good Nuevo Latino-Peruvian place (Destino, Nov. 29), a Peruvian-American reader dropped us a line to say the restaurant was not only inauthentic, but also a major disappointment. This time, the claim was punctuated as follows: "This fusion thing has gone too far!"

Perhaps it has, perhaps it hasn't; when I'm crowned emperor of the world, I'll decide. Still, I can sympathize: Once, in Paris, I ate at a place that purported to serve my seminative cuisine (Mexican, since I grew up in Southern California), and received food so alien from what I'd come to expect that when I next flew to Europe I was packing tortillas. Were these Peruvian places in San Francisco duping me in a similar fashion? Ever selfless, I volunteered to take a monthlong, all-expenses-paid culinary tour of Peru to find out. Unfortunately, my editors said no -- another issue that will be dealt with, quite swiftly, when I rule over all humankind.

Until then, if the food in Peru is anything like the food at Fresca, I may end up paying for the trip myself. Fresca isn't a fancy place, but rather a smallish, storefront-cafe establishment set on quiet (if you don't mind Muni traffic) West Portal Avenue. As my friend Michelle and I stepped inside, we could actually feel that we were about to enjoy a wonderful meal, perhaps due to the warm greeting we received or to the golden, sponge-painted walls hung with bundles of dried chili peppers and a gigantic, gleaming brass sun. A soft, salsa-esque soundtrack filled the air, and, best of all, the open kitchen seemed to exude the smell of every delectable thing in the world being cooked at once.

That last impression wasn't entirely inaccurate, because the people of Peru have produced one of the most stunning cuisines I've ever come across. For those without handy access to reference material on Peru, it's a fairly large place with a lengthy Pacific coastline that gives way to mountains and, traveling north toward Ecuador, jungles. One finds potatoes, corn, and an abundance of naturally occurring chilies, known as aji, and, like pretty much all cuisines here in the New World, a cookery that took shape via the introduction of outside influences: Asian-style stir-fries, European-style cream sauces, and anticuchos, kebabs of marinated beef heart said to have been invented by Peru's African slaves. Peru even has a Creole (Criollo) style of cooking.

When dining at Fresca on a weekend, my advice would be to get there early. We arrived just after 9 p.m., and though acquiring a booth wasn't a problem, the kitchen had run out of halibut seviche (served on Saturday and Sunday) and fresquitos, billed as fried pasta wraps stuffed with shrimp and jack cheese. Another hint: Bring a map if you're not familiar with the area, for no sooner had we taken our seats than my friend Alexandra, who was meeting us, called from Cow Hollow to say she'd gotten lost.

Once you're in, brace yourself for a splendid -- and splendidly bounteous -- meal, courtesy of a trio of Peruvians, all surnamed Calvo-Perez (Julio, the chef/owner; his son, Jose, the sous-chef; and Zoila, the wife, mother, and manager). Though a small, affordable wine list beckoned, we began with a light, fruity pitcher of sangria with diced apple, then stepped directly into the light with an order of croquetas de cangrejo. These delicate crab cakes with a creamy aioli dipping sauce were served with an exquisite medley of bell peppers, onions, carrots, and red cabbage sautéed in soy sauce and butter. A second starter, papas a la huancaina, is a classic Peruvian treat, with a twist -- thick slabs of chilled potato (quite Incan) with a mildly spicy cream sauce (quite tasty), topped with feta and kalamata olives (quite Greek).

Greek? Oh yes, these Calvo-Perezes have no fear of mixing things up. In fact, the menu indulges in the insanity of both "wrap" burritos (a southern Thai burrito, a Greek burrito, a Caesar salad burrito) and "Fresca Mex." We ordered one dish from the latter category, enchiladas de mariscos with Veracruzana sauce, and received corn tortillas stuffed with a piquant blend of shrimp, scallops, and squid, served with tender black beans and rice.

That was a decent nosh, but our chupe ("Peru's national treasure," according to the menu) seemed a far wiser choice. And if chupe isn't really Peru's national treasure, it should be. A cavernous bowl contained approximately a half-gallon of rich, creamy, velvety stew laced with clams, mussels, squid, fish, an abundance of superbly tender scallops, plus potatoes, corn, hard-boiled egg, and rice deeply infused with the flavors of the other ingredients. A picante de mariscos hit similar notes on a slightly smaller, more intense scale: It contained no rice, but was still quite silky and bursting with seafood, the whole underscored by a shimmering dose of aji amarillo (yellow chilies).

Meanwhile, our mulas ("mules," a take on "burrito") de salmon might best be described as truly cosmic fish tacos of Calvo-Perezian origin -- thick, juicy fillets of salmon over corn tortillas, topped with sour cream, guacamole, and pico de gallo. Alexandra arrived in time to sample this last dish, then died more than a few deaths over our rack of lamb, four gorgeous, savory riblets over mashed potatoes, stir-fried zucchini and carrots, plus luscious, hulking prawns buried in the potatoes -- Peruvian-style surf-and-turf at its best.

Our final entree, herbed rotisserie chicken, triggered a few thoughts on my part. On the one hand, no chicken has ever taken me higher than the sage-roasted bird at North Beach's Cobalt Tavern. But then, Cobalt's chicken sets you back $16, while Fresca's costs only $7.95. What's more, Fresca provided a far larger member of the species laced with cumin, garlic, and fresh herbs, plus a mountain of thick-cut, Peruvian-style fries and a heap of lightly dressed greens -- a simple, hearty, eminently satisfying plate that delivered as much bang as anyone could ask for their buck.

I know for a stone-cold fact that Peruvians eat dessert (like most people), often in the form of alfajores. Fresca gives you one for $1.50, which seemed a bit pricey, but after we bit into that shortbread-based, powdered sugar-dusted wonder with its rich, dark, doughlike center, we were ready to hand our waiter a credit card and tell him to keep bringing alfajores until further notice. A second dessert offered on the menu made me wonder why just about all the Latino restaurants I've eaten at over the years serve flan, since it's often mediocre at best. One bite told me I'd been getting screwed that entire time, because flan at Fresca means a rich, custardy delight topped with a light, smoky drizzle of caramel, a dessert anyone anywhere in the world could love.

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Greg Hugunin

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