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Peru's Palate

Inca Gardens
Christopher Gardner

Hot Potatoes: Inca Gardens showcases a flavorful mix of dishes from Peru and South America.

New restaurant provides intriguingly seasoned comfort food fit for an Inca god

By Christina Waters

Some words carry more magic than others. "Inca" is one of those, conjuring up fabulous lost cities high in the Andes, Yma Sumac, the potato. And now we can add Inca Gardens, a gleaming new incarnation of a hole-in-the-wall eatery wedged between downtown and San Jose State University.

So appealing is this restaurant, awash with white walls and tables and festooned with colorful textiles and posters, that it was already packed when we arrived last week for lunch. Our fellow travelers included lots of Spanish-speakers clearly overjoyed with the South American menu. The best news, from my point of view, was that the fare didn't make concessions to North American tastes. This is an authentic listing of ceviches, papa (potato) dishes and spiced steaks.

Lunch served two needs: sampling the new downtown San Jose restaurant, and providing a chance to talk over old times with a terrific guy I hadn't seen for years. All of this called for bottles of Cristal, a Peruvian pilsner-style brew ($3), as well as a glass of a delicious beverage called chicha morada ($1.25) that resembled a tangy mix of ginger, hibiscus and root beer. Both tasted great with a plate of chile-roasted pine nuts.

Gabbing so much that our server was forced to return three times until we were ready to order, we finally agreed on a few starters. Instead of ceviche, we headed straight toward papa rellena, a stuffed potato creation served with a zippy salsa ($3.49). And since chowders are another Peruvian favorite, we had to go with a chupe de camarones ($6.75). Eventually we ordered entrees of the famous Peruvian fried rice, arroz chaufa ($4.99), and an order of the house roasted chicken, pollo a la brasa ($6 for a half chicken).

Bear in mind that, Incas aside, Peru is in many ways a melting-pot culture, whose culinary influences range from Asian to Creole. Just ordering these dishes with musical names was fun, and the friendly staffers were patient.

To add firepower to the mild food, a side dish of green chile salsa lay in wait. We found it hotter than hell, but so addictive that we just mopped our brows and began adding it to everything.

Meanwhile, the chowder, a milky broth delicately flavored with scallions, tomatoes and lots of cilantro, met with approval, though not wild applause. I had been expecting something thicker, packed with potatoes and corn. It was a modest soup, with only two prawns to call its own.

Next came a huge platter generously mounded with what looked like classic fried rice. Only it was better, richer, fuller-bodied. Eggs had been scrambled into this ham and cilantro-infused rice and the effect was irresistible. We could have walked in, shared this one dish and walked away satisfied. But there was one more item to check out, an entire half chicken served with a pool of luscious white beans. The chicken was moist and succulent--but the beans were extraordinary.

I detected a vinegar finish to the slow-cooked beans; their own earthy flavor had been subtly enhanced by touches of cumin and cinnamon. In the center of the flavors blazed an inner heat. The balance was amazing. We even stopped lying about the good old days long enough to toast this dish, and just how much fun dining at Inca Gardens had been. (By the way, Ben, you looked great.)


Inca Gardens
Address: 87 E. San Fernando St., San Jose
Phone: 408/993-9793
Cuisine: Peruvian, South American
Hours: Daily, 11am-9pm
Entrees: $5.99-$7.95

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From the March 28-April 3, 1996 issue of Metro

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