CUCHARA DEL INCA
Restaurante in Santa Fe Old Town
Peruvian Price of Place
317 Aztec St
Santa Fe NM 87501
Monday-Saturday 12 to 9PM
The yuca frita ($8) is addictive. The fried wedges of the root vegetable (not to be confused with the yucca that grows in gardens and along roads in the Southwest) need no coating to develop a crisp, crunchy exterior that yields to a soft, naturally sweet interior. It’s perfect bar food, if Cuchara del Inca had a bar.
Papa a la Huancaína ($8), yellow Peruvian potatoes boiled to a perfect fork tenderness, are served on a romaine lettuce leaf with a generous topping of creamy, golden yellow aji amarillo sauce. An ancient species of Peruvian yellow chile pepper, aji amarillo — along with garlic and red onion — forms the holy trinity that flavors traditional Peruvian cuisine. The peppers can be mid-range on the Scoville heat scale, but are mild as served here — tamed, perhaps, by the addition of fresh cheese to the sauce.
A favorite, causa de pollo ($8) features potatoes, cooked to a chunky, mashed consistency, then molded and layered with shredded chicken breast and just enough mayonnaise to hold it all together. It’s a combination of flavors and textures that brings summer picnics to mind. Peas add pop to the mix, while slices of avocado contribute additional creaminess. Served chilled rather than cold, Cuchara del Inca’s version of the dish, which is served in Peruvian restaurants around the world.
Lomo saltado ($15) pairs excellent French fries with a scoop of rice. The unusual combination of sides is an example of the Peruvian chifatradition, which blends Andean and East Asian staples with the stir-frying technique brought to the country by Chinese immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here, thin strips of chewy but not tough sirloin are marinated, stir-fried with tender-crisp red onions, tomatoes, and peppers, and seasoned with soy sauce and vinegar to produce a rich brown sauce. Spoon the sauce over the rice or dip the French fries in it, and enjoy what may have been the world’s first naturally occurring fusion fare.
The pescado frito ($13) put a large piece of fresh red snapper on the table. The moist fillet, lightly fried to a perfect crisp and sided with a scoop of rice and a salad of mixed lettuces, cukes, tomatoes, and slivered red onions, was a satisfying supper.
Arroz con mariscos($18), what the menu calls a “Peruvian paella,” was an equally well-prepared mix of shrimp, small clams, and mussels served over an orange-hued bed of rice and peas, the color a possible result of blending golden aji peppers with tomatoes. The generous portion of juicy shrimp were perfectly cooked, as was the shellfish.
Ceviche ($12), fresh red snapper, the cubes of citrus-cured raw fish and thin slivers of red onion arrived in a puddle of cloudy juices, sometimes called tiger’s milk, that signifies a traditional approach to the dish. Served with the customary sides of baked sweet potato and crunchy kernels of Peruvian corn, I would have liked more heat in the ceviche...ask for some spicier red pepper sauce to mix into the juices if you so desire.
A nightly special of flattened, lightly battered and fried chicken breast ($18) is served with rice and an interesting salad featuring kiwicha, a Peruvian superfood (along with quinoa and maca) that NASA has incorporated into meals for astronauts. The salad dressing, a particularly delicious blend of lime juice and Peruvian vinegar, elevated the entire dish from good enough to high praise.
($3 each) include freshly made chichi morada, Peruvian purple corn boiled with apple, pineapple, and lime juices sparked with cinnamon, and maracuyá, or passion fruit juice. Inca Kola, a very sweet golden soda flavored with lemon verbena, is on the menu, and also on a wall in the dining room, a Warhol-like tribute to Peru’s national beverage. The coffee (also $3) is an organic, smoky medium roast sourced from the Peruvian jungle.
($6 each) are not overly sweet. Cuchara del Inca’s alfajores, a cookie sandwich common to most countries colonized by Spain, are filled with a dulce de leche made by boiling sweetened condensed milk down to a thick caramel. Sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon, the tender cakes were about as good as they get, but we fell even harder for the arroz con leche, a milky, almost cereal-like rice pudding studded with raisins and bits of orange zest, also sprinkled with cinnamon and served warm.
Restaurateur Trotsky Baretto, a native of Lima, Peru, brings some of that mission to Santa Fe. Originally opened as a spinoff of the Taos-based Quechua Peruvian restaurant in a tiny spot on Vegas Verdes this summer, the restaurant closed, then reopened last month as Cuchara del Inca (or Incan Spoon) in a more visible and hospitable location in the Railyard district.
Peru’s terrain ranges from mountainous highlands to the Amazonian rainforest to more than 1,500 miles of Pacific shoreline. Its biodiversity, along with the historic culinary contributions of immigrants and colonizers, brings a wide range of indigenous and imported ingredients to the country’s traditional cuisine. Cuchara del Inca’s menu includes many of the most popular.
“We make all dishes with a lot of love,” says MrBarreto. The same could be said for all of Cuchara del Inca’s offerings. The love — and Baretto’s pride in the culture and culinary traditions of his homeland — lights up the room, and enlivens everything that comes out of the kitchen.