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The Zest of Times 


Wednesday, Nov 27 2002
The quarters were tight at Limón, the Mission's coziest new hot spot, which afforded Rachel and me a discreet view of the stylish young man and woman at the next table. Not only could I see how well-caramelized the guy's pork chop was, I even heard him point out the caramelization to his companion. I also noted a certain awkwardness in their interaction: As they talked, his answers were terse, his gestures tight and halting. If this was a date, it was a first one -- and there wouldn't be a second; if the two were friends, the guy needed to relax. Regardless, I was glad when they paid their bill and left, to be replaced by an equally fashionable pair. Our new neighbors had no intimacy issues: They held hands, played footsie, fed one another prawns, and seemed a mere shred of decorum away from licking aioli off each other's bellies right there in the middle of the restaurant.

Of course, the amorous dalliances of the trendy set are a common enough sight at newbie Mission eateries. Far more interesting is the fact that you'll find just as many Latinos as yuppies at Limón: We saw casually dressed mom 'n' pop couples, a burly hombre with a well-caramelized chop of his own, and a retro-chic pair who could have been pulled straight from Almodóvar's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! The beauty of Limón is that the menu is built to please all these folks, blending homey Peruvian classics with a restrained style of Nuevo Latino fusion. In many ways, the place reminds me of a Peruvian Luna Park: The prices are affordable, it's a fun spot to dine, and business is booming, to the extent that I was turned away at 5 p.m. on a Sunday (family day, from what I gathered).

Traditional dishes aside, Limón leans toward the modish end of the restaurant design scale. A tiny shoe box of a dining room is painted bright yellow and girded with a band of stainless steel. Colorful art adorns the walls, and dim lighting and votive candles at every table may promote tender feelings between you and your date. A frosted-glass partition catches bursts of flame from the open kitchen. Service is friendly, if a bit slow at times (on the night we visited, our waiter expended as much effort conversing with the above-mentioned retro-chic couple as he did delivering food). The 15-bottle wine list ($24-45, 11 choices by the glass) spans the globe. It includes surprisingly few South American choices, but does have a superb Dr. Bürklin-Wolf Riesling, a dry, clean-tasting sip with a grassiness reminiscent of a sauvignon blanc. Avoid the sangria, which is far too sweet and lacks the bite of superior versions. Beers include the standard Peruvian choices -- Pilsen, Cusqueña, and a crisp, barely hoppy Cristal.

If you're in any way familiar with the cuisine of Peru -- itself a fascinating mélange of South American, European, and Asian influences, with a heavy emphasis on seafood -- you'll find many old friends on the menu. Some come with a small twist, as was the case with our first starter, the tamal criollo, which may be the largest member of the tamale species this side of Roosevelt's. Steamed in a banana leaf, this lovely creature consisted of tender, earthy masa (corn dough) laced with roasted pork and olives, the whole permeated with a subtle shimmer of panca chili powder, with cleansing, vinegared onions on the side. We weren't as taken with the crab cake, a golden, hulking cylinder that, though perfectly textured, was a bit bland, a situation not quite rectified by an otherwise clever array of condiments (tomato concassé, a drizzle of basil oil, and a mild rocoto-chili aioli).

Far better to have the mejillones -- plump, juicy mussels served in a rich, saffron-tinged coconut sauce with bits of savory pancetta. Like most starters at Limón, this one could have fed two. The ceviche appetizer, meanwhile, was large enough to provide nibbles for half a dozen. Many creatures gave their lives for each plate of it, and though they might feel differently, I'd say the sacrifice was worth it. Snow-white halibut, prawns, green-lipped mussels, and surpassingly tender squid were marinated in enough lime juice to make a statue pucker, then served with red onions, chunks of yam, and kernels of toasted corn that cut the stinging acidity of the seafood with a dry, smoky pop.

Entrees tended to be less creative than starters, and didn't impress to the same extent. This phenomenon had less to do with Limón's execution (which was fine) than with the fact that you can get most of the same dishes at Fresca, on West Portal -- still the best Peruvian place in town if you ask me. All the same, you will not walk away disappointed. Lomo saltado was a simple, tasty stir-fry of beef, onion, tomato, and french fries livened with a dash of soy sauce (there's also a chicken version). The picante de mariscos could have used a little more oomph, but proved satisfying nonetheless. A cream-rich stew contained fried potatoes and an ocean's worth of seafood -- head-on prawns, tiny shrimp, squid, buttery scallops, and mussels -- and was served, like the saltado, with a generous scoop of rice.

By this point, Rachel's eyes were glazing over in a manner I've seen among many dining companions during the past few years (in other words, the portions are massive enough that to-go boxes leave with all but the heartiest eaters). Still, she mustered the strength to help me polish off the budín de plátano, a spongy, barely sweet banana cake drizzled with caramel sauce, topped with a pillow of airy whipped cream. For a lighter finish, try the lucuma ice cream -- a traditional Peruvian sweet flavored with the rare (at least in these parts) jungle fruit whose flavor is difficult to describe. This cold treat is smooth, bright, a bit nutty, and delectable -- the kind of dish that, like so many choices here, hits the spot both for homesick Peruvians and for those of us who simply enjoy dining well.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin


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