The big screen TV at La Posada Del Inca was showing a rock concert. Well, not exactly rock. The band was wearing American-style clothes and playing guitars before a huge, pulsating crowd of adoring women. But the music sounded like a speedy version of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western soundtrack -- topped with Incan-style flutes.
Peru is the point of collision for many cultures -- Incan, Spanish, Gypsy, Japanese, and even Italian. It makes sense that the cuisine of Peru is regarded by many as one of the world's most varied and best. Some say it is on par with the food of France, Italy, and China. Although I am just getting my feet wet with Peruvian food, I am already a big fan.
Perhaps the best Peruvian food in Houston is served at La Posada Del Inca, a new restaurant on Long Point just west of Blalock. The huge menu has a variety of Peruvian dishes. For Americans new to Peruvian food, some dishes will seem fairly safe and familiar. Other dishes will be extremely exotic.
On my first visit, I ordered safely, despite my best efforts. I asked the waitress -- a fair-skinned English-speaking woman -- which item on the menu was "really unusual." She recommend a rotisserie cooked chicken. "No, no," I said, "I want something unusual, something different." Then she describes a dish of marinated meat, "much like fajitas mixed with french fries." She just was not getting it, so I tried a different tact: "Perhaps some seafood?" She responds, "we have ceviche." I asked, "is it marinated in lime juice, like Mexican ceviche?" "Yes," she admitted. "Ok," I said, "what about this yellow dish pictured on the menu?" "Oh," she said, "that's Aji de Gallina -- chicken in spicy milk. It's one of my favorites."
The aji de gallina looks exactly like a plate of French curry. Pieces of chicken are swimming in a bright yellow sauce next to a beautiful mound of perfectly cooked rice. Yet the sauce -- the "spicy milk" -- does not taste like curry. Nor is it all that spicy. It does have a wonderful creamy flavor and tastes like a concentrated chicken broth. The dish is subtle, emphasizing the flavor of chicken.
The waitress explains that I can make the dish spicier by adding some aji sauce -- which is a salmon-colored paste served in a separate bowl. This is a bit confusing because my chicken is called "aji de gallina. Apparently "aji" is a generic word for "pepper" that comes in different colors and spice levels. The "spicy milk" is yellow because it uses a mild, yellow-colored aji. Yet the aji sauce on the side has a pinkish color and is extremely spicy. The flavor is a salty,greenish pepper flavor, more like jalapeno than habanero. But the sauce is as spicy as habenero. After a few bites, my mouth is burning.
The aji sauce is, quite simply, one of the two or three best hot sauces I have ever had. I mix as much as possible into the chicken dish. And I leave the restaurant in some serious pain.
On my next visit, the waitress is gone and no one speaks much English. I try to communicate in Spanglish with a man in a chef's apron. He points at some photos on the wall of some dishes he seems to like, including one called anticuchos. Anticuchos are skewers of spicy marinated beef heart. Altough I do not always like organ meat, these hearts have a texture similar to beef tips and a flavor that is less like liver and more like the strong meat flavor of very rare beef.
The anticuchos are accompanied by a pan-sauteed boiling potato, plus the strangest corn-on-the-cob I have ever seen. The corn kernels are enormous, bigger than hominy, and their color is pale white. Their taste and texture are more like potatoes than corn.
Once again, they serve the glorious aji sauce, but this time with some commercially-manufactured tortilla chips. I am not impressed with the chips, but they do their job of conveying the spicy aji to my mouth.
As I leave, I pick up a small desert called alfajores. It consists of a filling of molasses sandwiched between two layers of very soft pastry, made from a mix of flour, lemon rind, and powdered sugar. It is so good that I wished I had bought a second.
Apart from some unusual ingredients and the spicy aji sauce, the main appeal of this food is a purity of flavor. The chicken dish really tastes like chicken. The beef hearts really taste like beef. This purity of ingredients reminds me much more of French cuisine than Mexican, or Italian, or Spanish.
I beg you to try to La Posada Del Inca. My reasons are selfish. I need this restaurant to survive because there are so many menu items that I want to try. And yet on both of my two lunchtime visits, I was the only customer. It deserves better. The food is out of this world -- or at least out of this hemisphere.