Call me a traitor, but my money's on the Peruvians. Their cuisine has evolved over five centuries of interaction among the indigenous culture and successive waves of immigrants Spanish, African, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, French who each added new ingredients and techniques to the mix. Today, Peru's food is as sophisticated and varied as any in the world.
In San Francisco, one of the best places to get a sense of its depth and breadth is Mochica, a quiet, friendly, modestly elegant place in a mostly industrial section of SOMA near the I-80 freeway. The long menu deliciously demonstrates many aspects of the tradition, national and regional, old and new.
Tiradito, for example: This is a family of modern dishes adapted from Japanese sashimi. Pristine raw fish is sliced, laid on a plate, often salted, and sauced with just about anything the chef might like. Mochica's version starts with slices of halibut layered across a plate like carpaccio, smothers the fish in a pool of fabulous mayonnaise-like sauce of bright yellow-orange aji amarillo chilis (the most popular of many only-in-Peru varieties), and sprinkles it with choclo, chewy kernels of giant hominy-like corn. This is the kind of dish that might bring you back the next day.
Halibut also turns up in the house version of Peru's best-known invention, ceviche, which in its classic form is raw fish or (sometimes cooked) shellfish marinated in lime juice with salt, onions, chilis, and sometimes other ingredients. Ceviche Mochica offers three different ceviches of the same fish: mild cilantro, slightly spicy aji amarillo, and spicy rocoto (another indigenous chili), garnished with choclo, crunchy cancha (another kind of corn, something like half-popped popcorn kernels), and a piece of sweet potato. This presentation made it easy to appreciate the differences. Ceviche mixto, a simple and traditional combination of fish and other seafood, was less exciting.
The menu also offers plenty of cooked seafood. Pulpo parrilla con papas doradas is a whole small octopus, parboiled, then grilled, served with fried potatoes and a spicy aioli-like dipping sauce. Chicharrones, which in Peru means not pork rind but anything deep-fried, are fried squid with salsa criolla, an onion relish similar to Mexican pico de gallo minus the tomatoes, and crema de rocoto, a yummy aioli-like dipping sauce. Calamares rellenos are squid stuffed with a surprising and surprisingly good medieval-seeming combination of sausage and raisins.
The best seafood dish of all might be chupe de camarones, described as "shrimp bisque with egg rice and cheese." Except for the shrimp, none of the listed ingredients was distinguishable: Instead, it was a creamy soup the texture of rich coconut milk, topped with a film of red-black chili flakes and spicy oil, with a deep, amazing flavor.
Peru's the original home of the potato, still a major staple for much of the population. Papas a la huancaina, originally a local specialty of the city of Huancayo, has become a national favorite: Cold slices of potato are napped with a sauce of fresh cheese and aji amarillos, then topped with hard-boiled eggs and botija olives (similar to Kalamatas). Mochica uses small slices, so they're like spicy, salty canapes; they go very well with wine. Causita di pollo is another great cold appetizer: a small cylindrical cake of two layers of wonderful mashed potatoes with a great chicken salad in the middle. Another starchy indigenous staple is camote, a kind of sweet potato, similar in texture to ripe plantains but not sweet. Mochica's camote fritto is very nicely fried and served with a dipping sauce reminiscent of Japanese salad dressing.
Not all the vegetarian dishes are starchy. Choclo peruana, a salad of beets and choclo with a strong cotija-like cheese, makes a refreshingly light contrast to the heavy appetizers. Another salad includes lettuce, onion, peppers, a modest amount of marinated quinoa (a bit like tabouleh), and a vinaigrette with a strong hint of oregano or marjoram.
Chinese food has been widely popular in Peru for more than a century, and it has evolved a distinct style known as chifa, which heavily (in more than one sense) features indigenous ingredients. Mochica's lomo al sugo is a fine example: Good beefsteak is sliced and stir-fried with aji amarillo, onions, tomatoes, and soy sauce, then mixed with french fries, and served with rice.
Anticuchos, the Peruvian national street and bar snack comparable to our hot dogs were invented by the Spanish colonists' African slaves as a way to make less desirable cuts of meat more palatable. In the most common version, thin slices of beef heart are marinated overnight in a mix of vinegar, garlic, chilis, and cumin, then put on skewers and charcoal-grilled. Mochica's are earthy, spicy, and great with red wine; if heart turns you off, you can substitute regular beef, chicken, or fish.
Perhaps the most unique Peruvian foodstuff is papa seca, potatoes preserved by freeze-drying them outoors in the thin, dry, cold air of the high Andes. For millennia these have been used to make carapulcra, a thick stew of pork, papa seca, and onions flavored with cilantro, hot aji panco chili paste, and spices. Given all that potato, the rice that comes with this dish at first seems overkill, but I was glad to have it to sop up the last drop of delicious sauce.
Be sure to try some of the more traditional desserts, particularly the suspiro ala Limena ("sigh of a lady of Lima"). Soft cajeta (milk caramel) custard is topped with a layer of whipped cream, which in turn is topped with a winey zabaglione: The cajeta custard alone would be great, but the triple play is transcendent. If there were any of the promised sweet potato in the flan de camote, it wasn't noticeable, but just as well the flavor and texture were perfect, and the passion fruit sauce and crunchy seeds made the dish. Most unusual is the sol y sombra: A dense, not very sweet, dark purple pudding made from a special variety of corn used only for desserts and drinks is topped with an unsweetened, cinnamony rice pudding.
The wine list is fairly short, but thoughtfully selected, with some good South American and Spanish bottles in the $6-8/glass or $20-25/bottle range. There are also some nice beers, including a good Peruvian pilsner that goes well with the picadito. Sorry, no hard liquor, so no Pisco sours.
Service was warm and friendly, though occasionally slow. This definitely isn't the place for a quick meal before a show.
Peruvian food has gotten pretty trendy here in recent years, but most of the better-known places either shy away from the more exotic dishes and ingredients, or adapt them to American tastes. Kudos to Mochica's chef Carlos Altamirano for bringing San Franciscans something closer to the flavors of his home.