Gastronomically speaking, Peru is a kaleidoscope of culture, the culmination of a nearly 500-year melting pot of Spanish, African, Japanese, and Chinese soldered together by the country's own indigenous cuisine.
Quintessentially simple, many of the country's best dishes are peasants' fare: whole fish pulled from the Atlantic Ocean and cut and served raw, or rice and bean-based platters accented with pit-roasted meats.
While you can find pollo a la brasa on nearly any South Florida street corner, archetypical Peruvian fare like anticuchos (grilled skewers of meat and shellfish) or arroz chaufa (Peruvian-Chinese fried rice) can be harder to find.
In Pembroke Pines, however, you have some options thanks to a number of restaurants spread over a few miles west of I-95 along a Peruvian-inflected strip of Pines Boulevard.
This is where you will find C-Viche Restaurant, which joined the ranks of the area's small, family-run establishments about six months ago with little fanfare. Located in a strip mall best-known for the lure of craft doughnuts (Mojo Doughnuts is next door), the restaurant is easy to overlook despite a bold red sign.
C-Viche will win no awards for its decor; a dining room is lunchroom-casual, with barren walls and nothing but a pair of TVs blaring Spanish programming. Tidy rows of white tablecloth tables with seating for two to four are all you get in terms of atmosphere, and a short bar offers nothing but import beers -- like Peruvian Cristal -- and just one type of liquor, enough to make a few potent pisco sours. Yet despite its dismal trappings, C-Viche has managed to make its mark the old-fashioned way: by serving well-made, regional dishes presented by Peruvian-born chef and owner Miguel Rios.
Rios hails from the city of Piura, located in a province in northwest Peru, with the Andes Mountains to the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Home to one of the oldest mestizo cultures in South America, the area is known to gastronomes the world over for dishes like seco de chabelo (dried jerky-like meat, mashed green plantains, and fermented corn juice), algarrobina-sweetened drinks, and its own take on ceviche -- what could be considered Peru's national dish.
Rios first came to the United States from Peru in the early 1990s, working odd jobs while attending culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu's Miami campus. His goal: bring the cuisine of his homeland to South Florida. And he did, opening a string of establishments as both chef and partner, beginning with Margate's Peruvian staple Tumi.
"Peruvian cuisine is simple," said Rios. "There, everything is much fresher. The taste is so pure. Here [in the U.S.], it's not always easy to replicate the flavors of Peru as you would taste them there. The fish is the biggest difference."
C-Viche is his latest concept, a neighborhood-style establishment with a menu offering both modern and traditional Peruvian cuisine side by side. Dishes include a list of hot and cold appetizers, several takes on ceviche, soups and salads, and entrées that include some meat and chicken but are largely seafoodcentric. Prices offer similar variety and fluctuate from penny-pinching affordable to fine-dining pricey.
Starters like causa -- bright yellow potatoes layered with meat and vegetable filling and blended with lime juice and pepper sauce -- will fill you up for less than $8; house specialties and large sharing plates are priced from $20 to $30.
Velarde recommends a peasant's dish of tacu tacu, often considered the working man's lunch staple. An Afro-Peruvian recipe, it's traditionally made using leftover rice and beans, which are shaped into a pancake and fried in a hot pan; it's typically served with a side of meat and plantains and sometimes topped with a fried egg. Disappointingly, C-Viche's tacu tacu is egregiously undercooked, devoid of any charred-in flavor, and it arrived without the familiar sides.
Here you're better off with the ceviche, a dish served at every Peruvian establishment from the rustic picanterías of the north to the bus-station snack bars of the cities. This South American staple of raw fish is a highlight at the aptly named C-Viche, an example of Peruvian dishes that forgo overpowering sauces and spice for the quieter pleasures of the aji Amarillo chili pepper.
"The aji is a mild, flavorful pepper and an important part of Peruvian cuisine," says Rios. "It provides the base for many of the country's dishes."
Despite various regional adaptations, Peruvian ceviche is most often made with fresh-caught corvina -- white sea bass -- hauled from boat to plate. In Lima, the capital city to the south, the dish is served in the traditional format: diced raw flesh marinated in a bath of lime juice and Andean ají amarillo chili purée. It's accompanied by a triple play of sides: hefty slices of boiled camote (a South American sweet potato), cancha (salted and toasted maize kernels), and sometimes yuyo, a local seaweed fashioned into a raw salad.
Rios delivers the same but with his traditional interpretation, as well as the mixtos -- a seafood ceviche of shrimp, mussels, and calamari -- which arrive in deep ceramic bowls, opaque slivers of acid-cooked fish swimming in a milky bath of lime juice, aji purée, and cilantro, finished with a delicate bird's nest of thin red onion and the traditional Limeño accoutrements. Just don't be surprised by the choclo, Tic Tac-sized translucent beads of Peru's sweet, native maize.
A specialty, if you're feeling adventurous, is Rios' ceviche frito; it's a street-food-style take, balls of raw fish tossed in a panko breading and flash-fried before serving with a creamy lime and tarter sauce. They arrive warm and crisp on the outside with a thin, fried shell that gives way to a cluster of lime-marinated fish and sitting in a shallow bath of tartar sauce that's thin and creamy, with an acidic tang.
A nod to Peru's Japanese influence, the tiradito is another dish of raw fish similar to Italian carpaccio but delivered with a sashimi-style presentation. Unlike ceviche, there's no lime bath, onions, or sides; instead, thin slips of fish are laid out in a clean line, served under a veil of flavorful, solar yellow aji pepper sauce.
In Peru, Rios says, the juice produced from the marinating ingredients -- known colloquially as leche de tigre, or tiger's milk -- is considered a hangover cure. The daring will slurp it straight from the bowl, a satisfying end to the dish and a prelude to the end of your night, as it's also thought to be an aphrodisiac.
At C-Viche, Rios uses it to thicken the sauce for his house specialty, a dish he calls camarones jumbo c-viche. It arrives steaming and fragrant, a pile of Piura-style rice smothered in a creamy yellow aji amarillo sauce, accented with red peppers and scallion, and finished with a crown of grilled jumbo shrimp.
Continue with the Peruvian-style stir-fried rice known as chaufa -- a recipe adopted by the Chinese field laborers of Canton Province who came to work the country's rice fields. The dish, a tower of scallion- and pepper-flecked rice, glistens with grease but is bursting with fresh flavors. It can be ordered with pork, beef, or chicken but is best con mariscos, with a hearty serving of mussels, calamari, and shrimp.
If you're feeling adventurous, order Rios' favorite meal, the piqueo norteño, a dish from his childhood. Derived from the same recipe his grandfather used, it's a shining example of Piura's regional specialty and a true representation of the cultural nimbus imbued in Peru's fare, from the Spanish dried, jerky-like strips of pork to the African-imported mashed green plantains and even the use of Peru's native chicha, a drink made from fermented corn or carob.
By the end of your meal, you'll have learned a few lessons: One, never judge a book by its cover; and two, Peru is a taste trip around the world in one sitting if you know where to look and what to order.
C-Viche Restaurant is located at 7908 Pines Blvd., Pembroke Pines; 954-987-0078; c-vicherestaurant.com. Open Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Saturday 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., and Sunday 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Papas a la huancaina $6.95
Ceviche frito $13.99
Tiradito al aji amarillo $13.99
Chaufa con mariscos $14.99
Camarones jumbo c-viche $18.99
Piqueo norteño $34.95
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