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Heart's Content 

Mi Lindo Peru

Wednesday, Aug 29 2001
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I've reviewed my share of restaurants during the past 2 1/2 years, from high-end destination eateries to homey little holes-in-the-wall, plus a revolving restaurant, a floating restaurant, a glass-enclosed restaurant, a strip club/restaurant, and (one of my more interesting experiences) a restaurant that reeked like Satan's armpit due to the Chinese delicacy known as stinking tofu. The most crucial aspects of the job are to keep the playing field level and to judge each place on its own terms.

I try to follow these rules, but mowing through thousands of dollars' worth of free food has drastically increased my appetite; as a result, there will always be a special place in my heart for what I think of as the "eating restaurant." All restaurants are about eating, of course, but the establishments I'm talking about are of a different breed. The food has to be good -- and served in portions so immense that once you consider the prices (which must be low), a trip to the supermarket starts to look like a bad deal.

If Mi Lindo Peru doesn't fit the above description, I don't see how any restaurant could. The first time I dropped by, a friend and I ordered what would normally be an average meal -- two appetizers and two entrees. Our waiter looked shocked: That would be way too much food, he said, and he was right -- we barely finished half. But that didn't stop my friend Petra and me from ordering three appetizers and three entrees on my next visit. This time, a different waiter told us we'd asked for way, way, way too much food, before escorting us to a larger table with foldout leaves. We didn't even come close to polishing off that second feast, which could have fed six people for a mere $80 -- wine, beer, tax, tip, and the entire dessert menu included.

Thus, on behalf of all the truly hungry souls in San Francisco, I'd like to thank the Miyahira family, Peruvians of Japanese descent who've been running Mi Lindo for the past five years. Though I have yet to see the place packed to capacity, it always seems to be hosting at least one large party of Peruvians feasting on the delicacies of their homeland. As is often the case at eating restaurants, the décor is nothing special -- strands of plastic ivy, a faux slanting roof that protrudes from the back of the restaurant, and a cluster of business-welcoming good luck cats -- and the service is friendly and straightforward. Place your order and before long you'll be staring down fine, traditional Peruvian dishes served on platters so huge they could hold a turkey.

I doubt even King Kong could walk away hungry from Mi Lindo. Every meal begins with a basket of white bread, a side of butter, and a fiery salsa laced with green onions and an abundant dose of aji panca chilies, seeds and all. You'll find the standard Inca Kola and alcohol-free chicha morada, as well as a righteously affordable (nothing more than $20 per bottle) wine list that includes a decent house red for $10 per liter. Or try the crisp, skunky Cusqueña beer, which stands up well to Mi Lindo's more intense dishes. Then, behold the menu: appetizers, soups, salads, tapas, vegetarian entrees, chicken entrees, meat entrees, and a whopping 23 choices from the sea.

All the usual Peruvian suspects are here, from a massive heap of zingingly hot, tart red snapper seviche to the classic papas a la huancaina -- thick slabs of chilled potato bathed in a creamy cheese sauce, served with black olives and boiled egg. Palta rellena de camarones translates as thin-sliced avocado topped with a simple blend of shrimp, mayonnaise, onion, and celery, while the highly recommendable tamal de pollo consists of fluffy corn dough and chicken steamed in a banana leaf, then served with a side of lightly vinegared onions. Though Petra couldn't bring herself to try the anticuchos (Peru's classic kebabs of marinated beef heart), they were my favorite starter -- firm, flavorful meat inflected with a razor-sharp blend of aji chilies and vinegar, accompanied by a slice of grilled potato.

Of course, you're not really eating until the entrees arrive. Most of Mi Lindo's come with enough corn-flecked rice to fill a burrito; unless you split one with a friend (or you're really, really hungry), it'll fill you up and provide a fine Peruvian lunch the next day. My favorite seafood dish was the aguadito de mariscos -- a stew that combines shrimp, squid, clams, mussels, and rice in a bright, tangy cilantro broth. Ask for parihuela and you'll get the same seafoods in a good, if somewhat less memorable, white wine/tomato sauce, while the zarzuela de mariscos paired yet another seafood mix with a delicate, spicy, addictive saffron broth. Moving on to poultry, we both dug the saltado de pollo -- a simple, hearty stir fry of chicken, tomatoes, onions, and french fries livened up with a dash of soy sauce and a pinch of cilantro.

Like steak? I do, and I've had it plenty of ways -- grilled steak, cheesesteak, carne asada; steak with tarragon-mustard sauce, blue cheese sauce, green peppercorn sauce, peara sauce; steak with black olive butter and Gorgonzola butter; steak stir-fried in the Vietnamese dish bo luc lac ("shaking beef") and grilled in Afghani chapendaz. Often, it's one of the more boring choices on the menu, so Mi Lindo's bistec a lo pobre struck like a revelation. Here, the chef sautéed an approximately 12-ounce sirloin with just under an acre's worth of garlic and onions, then topped it with -- you probably didn't guess it -- a fried banana and a fried egg. It sounds strange, but it worked. The rich egg gave way to sweet, luscious fruit and juicy meat, yielding a sort of Peruvian-style steak-and-eggs breakfast (for dinner).

Somewhere along the way, you'll probably be tempted to ask for to-go boxes. It's a good idea to get several, because Mi Lindo's three desserts are all excellent. The word "alfajores" appears on every Peruvian menu, and despite the plural spelling it always denotes a single, powdered sugar-dusted shortbread cookie filled with rich, brown dough reminiscent of caramel. Flan is so common -- and so indistinguishable from one place to the next -- that I sometimes wonder if there isn't a flan factory in the Excelsior supplying 85 percent of the Bay Area's Latino restaurants. The solution to the monotony is Mi Lindo's creamy, house-made, nutmeg-spiked version, which is reminiscent of eggnog and easily one the best flans I've ever had. If you want to blow the bank, drop three bucks on the lucuma (an Andean fruit) ice cream. According to our waiter, some people compare the flavor of lucuma to watermelon, though to him it tastes more like Thai iced tea. I thought it tasted like Thai iced coffee, but the subtle, elusive, smoky-yet-sweet flavor never could be captured fully with words.

Mi Lindo Peru: It's where Peruvians go for comfort food and the rest of us go for exotic fare, and where everyone walks away happy and full.

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Greg Hugunin

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