If I recall correctly, Inka Trails Restaurant in Claremont has been around for about eight years. Located on Foothill Boulevard, between a gas station and a strip mall, the restaurant is easily missed. Actually, I had dined off and on at this location throughout the years. Before the current owner and before it became a Peruvian restaurant, it was an Argentinian restaurant. About a decade ago, I worked in the Inland Valley and my friend lived nearby. You can read the intro to my post about Brasserie Astuce Restaurant - Pomona for more information on the "Inland Valley," this odd little area that's really not quite part of the San Gabriel Valley nor the Inland Empire.
Anyway, if I hadn't worked out here, or had a friend who lived nearby, even I would be hard-pressed to know about this place. That's really a shame though because it's little mom-and-pop restaurants like this that makes dining out and introducing others to it such a pleasure for me.
According to Wikipedia, Peruvian cuisine is considered one of the most diverse in the world, incorporating aspects of Incan, Spanish, Basque, African, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, French, and British flavors. For example, along the Peruvian coast, there are more than 2,000 different types of soup and more than 250 traditional desserts. With an estimated 1.3 million Chinese-Peruvians, and more than 800,000 Japanese-Peruvians, they've had an impact on the cuisine as well. Chifa from the Mandarin chi fan (eat rice) is used to describe Chinese-influenced Peruvian food. Some examples include arroz chaufa (Peruvian fried rice) and the use of soy sauce in lomo saltado (Peruvian beef stir-fry).
I love the warm colors of the restaurant's exterior and interior. So inviting compared to the stark white and blue motif when it was an Argentinian restaurant.
Before I get to my lunch with Don, I had dined here last summer with my brother and his wife. I had to add some activity to my United Mileage Plus account so it didn't expire. Not that you need such an excuse, but just so you know, if you signed up for United Mileage Plus Dining, you get 3 miles per $1 spent here.
Complimentary bread and aji verde (Peruvian green chili sauce). This is one of the best versions I've had of this ubiquitous sauce, but more on that later. Smooth, creamy, with quite a kick. We requested refills of the bread and sauce several times. You can also purchase the sauce to-go.
I almost always insist on an appetizer order of ceviche de pescado (Peruvian citrus-marinated seafood salad) for $12.00. The fresh chunks of sole fish were marinated in lime juice, served with lettuce, sweet potato, potatoes, and Peruvian corn nuts. The lime juice works to "cook" the fish. The resulting juice is often called leche de tigre (tiger's milk) and you can spoon it over rice to eat too.
The fish were very tender and lightly tart. I could easily have eaten the ceviche alone as my whole meal.
I ordered one of the most popular Peruvian dishes, and one that is Chinese-influenced, Lomo Saltado (Peruvian Beef Stir-fry with French Fries) for $12.00. Lean top sirloin is marinated in a mixture of soy sauce and vinegar and sautéed with onions, tomatoes and French fries. Often served with rice to soak up all those beefy juices. If I hadn't known about the Asian influence on Peruvian food, this dish would have been right at home with its familiar flavors. In fact, there's a Vietnamese version. When my brother saw this dish, he said his college friend once cooked a "French" dish for him and made thit bo xao voi khoai tay chien (Vietnamese beef stir-fry with French fries).
We ordered the jalea (Peruvian fried seafood platter), which feeds two people for $24.95. The huge platter featured deep-fried fish, shrimp, mussels, scallops, calamari, yucca, and potatoes. While it was tasty, it was simply too much fried food, even for three people. Turned out my brother didn't read the menu closely and thought he ordered a seafood stir-fry. Though the dish was supposed to showcase the seafood, we all loved the crunch and texture of the deep-fried yucca.
It's just too bad I don't live closer to the restaurant. It was more than half a year later before I came back with Don. Here's that lovely plum(?) tree in front of his house that I had taken pictures of before in the dark.
I suggested he order chicha morada (Peruvian purple corn drink) for $2.50, while I ordered the very golden-colored Inca Kola for $2. The Inca Kola was way too sweet, vaguely reminiscent of pineapples. Sigh. The things I do for the blog, just to show you the options. I much prefer and recommend the chicha morada.
We ordered an appetizer of anticucho mixto (Peruvian mixed cut meats) for $9.00. Two grilled skewers, each with a piece of beef, chicken, shrimp and fish, served with fried potatoes and fried yucca. The slightly spicy-tart marinade was just so good, especially dipped in the aji verde. Don, who loves spicy foods, fell in love with the subtle spiciness of the sauce. Unfortunately, the bread delivery hadn't come that day, so we couldn't dip it into the sauce. Didn't matter, the sauce was so good we dipped every piece of potato with the aji verde and even asked for refills.
While we were dining, owner Patricia Rodriguez came over to check up on us. I couldn't resist asking for the recipe to her aji verde. She said she uses the Peruvian herb, huacatay, for that distinct flavor. She also whips the oil until it becomes creamy, similar to the way mayonnaise is made. Hmm. That's why my recipe for aji verde, while tasty to me, couldn't exactly replicate the flavors from here. I looked up more info about the herb on Alejandro of Peru Food's blog and found that it is sometimes called black mint, and is related to the marigold family. The aromatic leaves are ground to a paste and added to many Peruvian recipes.
While Don ordered the lomo saltado, I decided to try aji de gallina (Peruvian chicken in chili sauce) for $11.00. The shredded chicken was covered in a walnut gravy sauce, sprinkled with Parmesan cheese, and served with rice. This dish was a little too rich and cheesy for my taste, close in flavor to cream pasta. Next time, I'm going to try something more exotic from the menu.
For dessert, I wanted to try the lucuma ice cream for $5. I first ran across mention of this fruit, again on Peru Food, when Alejandro said it was used to flavor almost everything in Peru from cakes, drinks, and ice cream. It's a member of the sapotaceae family, so it tastes similar to Vietnamese hong xiem/xa po che (sapodilla). The ice cream had very strong caramel notes, with the familiar taste of xa po che.
I chatted a bit more with the owner and found out that she left her job as a nurse to start Inka Trails as a way to showcase Peruvian cuisine and culture. The first few years were tough and she relied on her husband's job as a contractor to get through. But as the restaurant gradually picked up customers, and when her husband had free time, they painted, remodeled, and added Peruvian touches. I told her the restaurant was a much more inviting place than what I remembered when it first opened.
As for the Asian influences on Peruvian food, that's long been a part of Peruvian culture. In fact, her step-father is Japanese.
I think Inka Trails would be doing much more brisk business if it were located closer to L.A. and asked her why she chose to open her restaurant in Clarement. She said her family lives in the area and her kids go to school nearby. That's why the restaurant is closed between 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, so she can pick her kids up from school and spend time with them before heading back to the restaurant.
And sometimes, it really is that commitment to quality of life, that shows through in the quality of the restaurant.
Other Peruvian restaurants:
Pollo ala Brasa - Los Angeles
Pollo Mania - El Monte
Pollos KiKiRyKi Peruvian Restaurant - Claremont
Inka Trails Restaurant
1077 W. Foothill Blvd. (Cross street is Towne Ave., next to a Shell gas station.)
Claremont, CA 91711
Open Tuesday to Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Saturday noon to 10 p.m.
Sunday noon to 8 p.m.
1 year ago today, my oldest uncle's wife's banh canh chay (Vietnamese vegetarian udon).