When you think of branching out into less-familiar cuisine, you might envision a visit to East Lake Street in Minneapolis or the Frogtown neighborhood along University Avenue in St. Paul. You probably don’t imagine finding it in a strip mall in Plymouth, just doors from Leeann Chin and Cousins Subs. At least, that’s what Jorge Armando Sarmiento’s wife, Amber, was thinking, when they first began scouting locations for their Peruvian restaurant. “I was thinking Uptown or the arts district,” she says. Jorge convinced her otherwise. “He kept telling me how places like Plymouth and Edina were getting voted ‘best place to live.’”
As it turns out, Jorge was onto something. Ever since the couple opened Uchu Peruvian Cuisine near 494 and Rockford Road, customers have been thanking them for being in the suburbs, telling them how happy they are to have an ethnic restaurant that’s nearby and not in Minneapolis. With no marketing or advertising outside of social media aside from the occasional coupon, they’ve attracted customers from far suburbs like Woodbury and Prior Lake, and even from as far away as the Dakotas and Wisconsin. Others, who might live or work nearby, have just stumbled upon the place, either as they were driving by or when they pulled up reviews on sites like heavytable.com and urbanspoon.com. Indeed, we at the magazine received no fewer than five referrals to this new hotspot since already having a story underway. (Thank you, all, for your great tips!)
My husband and I have taken a couple of trips to Peru, so when we heard about the opening, we signed right up. Although Peruvian fare enjoys a wider audience in coastal cities of the United States as a sort of up-and-coming foodie enticement, it’s hard to come by in the heartland and has been absent from the local dining scene since Machu Picchu of Minneapolis closed a few years ago. One of the things that excites us about the food is the fusion of flavors. It’s not just the rice and beans that you imagine being central to Latin cuisine, but there are Chinese, Japanese, African and Incan influences, as well.
Sarmiento feels the same, as he talks about the Asian roots in national dishes like the lomo saltado, a signature Peruvian stir fry made with seasoned slices of beef, onions, tomatoes and french fries in what he calls Peruvian soy sauce, a blend of soy sauce and vinegar. “It’s my second best-selling dish,” he says. For good reason, we thought, as the flavorful, tender slices of sirloin were devoured at our table. (Sarmiento says many Peruvians like to judge a restaurant on the basis of the lomo saltado, and he actually does serve a pretty regular Peruvian clientele.)
In other sections of the menu, there are a few safe Latin dishes like the tacu tacu, made with rice, beans, steak, fried egg and plantain, which Sarmiento says he included for people that are in more of the Mexican mindset or first-time guests. But since he hails from Lima, he prefers to flex his culinary muscle in the seafood dishes. The menu contains four ceviches, or seafood that is cold-cooked by being marinated in lime juice. We tried the mixto with calamari, shrimp and large chunks of tilapia.
I asked the couple how customers have received the ceviche. “I usually start by asking them if they’ve had ceviche,” says Amber, who waits tables while her husband does the cooking. “If they say no, I ask them if they like sushi.” Many take the bait. With her bubbly personality and the obvious passion she holds for her husband’s dishes, Amber does a strong sell on the food. It’s no surprise that she persuades even the most leery customers to break out of their comfort zone.
Our only complaint? It doesn’t look like we’ll be getting a pisco sour anytime soon. The Peruvian national drink made with pisco (grape brandy), lime juice and frothed egg whites is an obsession of mine. On our visit, the only alcoholic beverages in house were Corona, Budweiser, and Miller Light. Sarmiento says he has future plans to serve wine, but probably will not get the license to sell hard liquor.
Jorge has found that Minnesotans are pretty open-minded: “Not a lot of people know a lot about Peruvian cuisine when they come here, but they are willing to try new things.”
Tammy Sproule Kaplan has spent the past year at the helm of our food sections, and it is bittersweet that she’ll soon be moving on to greener pastures. If you have an interest in food and can write a decent note, send your samples and ideas to email@example.com.
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