I've eaten authentic Peruvian ceviche from tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants and new-school incarnations from big-name chefs. But the ceviche mixto ($12.99) at Flavor of Peru in Fort Lauderdale was truly noteworthy. The sizable mound of fresh sea bass — along with shrimp, calamari rings, and tiny bay scallops — was perfectly "cooked," marinated only so long in lime juice and fiery rocoto pepper that its flesh had just begun to turn milky and opaque. And the "tiger milk," the tart-hot liquid that pools at the bottom of the dish, was just like liquid crack: spicy, tangy, and irresistible. According to my dining companions Miche and Milica, both natives of Peru, the only thing stopping this from being truly authentic Peruvian ceviche was its distinct lack of sand.
I almost choked on my squid when they told me. Sand?
"In Peru, we eat ceviche served right on the beach," explained Milica between bites. "So the bottom of the container will usually have sand in it."
Damn. I've gotten sand in my swim trunks before but never in my shellfish.
"Let me be the first to say, I think I'm cool with the restaurant leaving that part out," I replied. As Miche and I dueled over a pair of shell-on mussels topped with fresh red onion and tomato, we used the spent shells to scoop up more tiger milk, slurping it down like liquor from an oyster. We polished off every last bit of the nectar before I pitched the idea that we should order another.
"Dude, we still have like six other things coming," Miche said with his trademark laugh. I say laugh, but it's really more of an infectious, full-body contortion. He was right — but I wanted more of that liquid crack.
Still, the ceviche did leave me excited about what was to come. We had opted to go the sharing route at Flavor of Peru, a three-month-old restaurant located in a bright blue strip mall on Federal Highway, ordering for the table instead of individually. Because the plates are so big and so inexpensive (the highest-priced item is just $16.99), you could easily wind up with a feast for under $50. Just make sure the people you bring have no aversion to seafood. Peru is famous for its bountiful supply of the stuff, so no surprise that Flavor of Peru's menu is so seafoodcentric. There are nearly 100 dishes offered, and over half of them involve either fish, shrimp, mussels, or squid.
"Thank god you eat fish now," I told my fiancee Danielle. She, like Milica, used to be a vegetarian, but caved to eating seafood thanks to — ahem — persistent outside influence.
"You think it's hard here — it's almost impossible to be a vegetarian in Peru," Milica retorted. "They serve you chicken since it's not meat."
We skipped the section of the menu labeled "pollo," which included such pan-South American staples as pollo a la plancha and chicken breaded Milanesa-style. Instead, Miche insisted that Danielle push her boundaries in another direction with pulpo al olivo ($13.99), a dish he described as octopus with olives and mayonnaise.
I had envisioned something like a tiradito — thin slices of octopus with a chunky olive salad on top. But instead, the dish arrived looking like a mound of mauve goo. Apparently, the chef blends purple Peruvian olives into the mayo, which then takes on their inky color. The mixture tops the thin slices of octopus, which lends the mild critter a heap of depth and richness.
"It's not much to look at," Danielle said, scooping some pulpo onto one of the salty crackers provided with it. "But it tastes amazing."
Miche wasn't eating any of the octopus he begged us to order. Instead, he was busy working on a platter of anticuchos ($8.99), grilled slices of marinated beef heart skewered on brochettes.
He laughed. "I told you I hate olives!" he announced (for the first time).
As for the anticuchos, I figured it was nostalgia that made Miche love them so much. Like him, I'm also obsessive about the famous Peruvian street food, which renders offal into meaty, delicate hunks of cumin-scented love. But these didn't do it for me, perhaps because the hearts weren't nearly as charred on the outside as I like them.
I'd also skip the papas a la huancaina ($5.99) and their too-thin cheese sauce, almost neon in color. Instead, I'd focus on the classic Peruvian dishes that Flavor gets right, like the lomo saltado ($11.99), a solid contender for Peru's most iconic national dish (outside of ceviche, of course). Peru is chock-full of Asian immigrants who, along with indentured servitude, brought stir-fry and spices to South America. Throw in some European influence and what you get is this bastard child of a dish: sautéed beef sirloin, onions, and bell peppers, cavorting in a rich soy-based sauce that gets soaked up by a healthy portion of French fries. The result is immutably comforting (not to mention a perfect stoner food).
Flavor of Peru's version is deeply rich and more refined than the cheapo lomo you'll find at fast casual Peruvian joints around the county (La Granja, La Brasa, et al.). For a few bucks more, you can get your saltado with tacu tacu, which is a sort of beans- and rice-heavy omelet that's crispy on the outside and starchy-gooey inside.
That's another area where Flavor of Peru really hits the mark. Despite the restaurant being new, owner Jesus Zelada has had plenty of practice turning out this kind of comfort food brought up to the white-tablecloth level — he's owned Miami's similar Sabor a Peru since 2008. The result of his experience is near-perfect chupe de mariscos ($12.99). This seafood stew is like a Latin clam chowder, only in place of the cream and bacon are milk and squeaky-fresh white cheese, thickened into a seafood broth tinted an almost unnatural shade of yellow thanks to aji amarillo (spicy yellow pepper). Be warned: A bowl of chupe is a huge endeavor. Ours fed six.
That theme of outsized portions is a recurring one at Flavor. Cau cau ($14.99), another brothy dish featuring a veritable grab bag of seafood (two kinds of shrimp, scallops, mussels, and calamari), is made hearty with potatoes and bold, grassy huacatay, a Peruvian herb that's a cross between mint and basil. A single order is easily enough for two people to eat. Huacatay appears again as a dipping sauce for jalea ($14.99), a massive mountain of fried seafood (more fish, shrimp, scallops, mussels, and calamari) that the gang and I tried — and failed — to polish off.
We did, however, find room for a single order of picarones for dessert ($3.99) — fried dough covered in sweet-potato flour and topped with a sort of clove-scented molasses. Miche asked for a cortadito to go with it (a shot of espresso literally "cut" with milk) so Danielle and I followed suit. We lingered on for hours, discussing the origins of syrupy sweet Inca Kola — it's made with chamomile, but tastes like cotton candy. Miche had to order two cans to go, along with a crumbly alfajore ($2), a sugar cookie filled with creamy dulce de leche.
I would have preferred to skip the cookies and order more ceviche to go. A short drive to the beach and you can add as much sand as you like.