Quest for the True Peru

Fresca

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.

Location Info

Map

Fresca

24 W. Portal
San Francisco, CA 94127

Category: Restaurant > South American

Region: West Portal

Fresca

2114 Fillmore
San Francisco, CA 94115

Category: Restaurant > Small Plates

Region: Japantown/Pacific Heights

Fresca

3945 24th St.
San Francisco, CA 94114

Category: Restaurant > Small Plates

Region: Castro/ Noe Valley

Details

759-8087. Open every day from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: rather easy. Muni: 17, 48, K, L, M. Noise level: moderate.

Sangria $20/pitcher
Croquetas de cangrejo $8.95
Chupe de mariscos $13.95
Rack of lamb $16.95
Rotisserie chicken $7.95
Alfajores $1.50
Flan $2.95

24 West Portal (at Ulloa)

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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).

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