RESTAURANTS ARE LIKE people: there are some you date, and some you marry. Flashy restaurants with rich sauces, meaty entrees of every ethnic persuasion, gorgeously made-up salads, and a full tray of fatty desserts can certainly create the illusion we have it all. I have a Rolodex full of Tucson restaurants that suit every need for illusion and indulgence, and in their presence I see myself with a teenager's metabolism and a CEO's wallet. I wouldn't trade them for anything.
But my heart belongs to Irene's. Tucson's first Peruvian restaurant -- located in what has been for the past year the distressingly vacant Café Magritte building on East Congress Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues -- is a place where you'll feel at home reading the newspaper, talking to your kids, and trusting the chef with your cholesterol count.
Husband-and-wife owners Charlie Bass and Irene Echeandia opened shop in late August, and in their cozy café cooking is a labor of love, and meal time as much about conversation as food.
Though born in Lima, Irene has spent most of her life in the United States. Her menu, which some wag has divided into a constitution of sorts (with appetizers listed under Preamble; sandwiches and entrees divided between Amendments I and II; and a "Bill of Rights" declaring kids eat free Monday through Friday), features a half-dozen entrees recreated from her native land. For those who want to test the waters before diving in, Irene's extends diplomatic immunity with sandwiches like the Macchu Pichu, a mountain of smoked turkey, salami, ham, provolone, American cheese and seasoned onions on a soft roll; and a kids' menu of traditional grilled cheese, or peanut butter with jelly or honey. A daily rotation of homemade soups -- including an aromatic lentil, hearty vegetable beef with noodles, and a signature avocado -- turn even a timid order into a house specialty (and a bargain when the lunch special is soup and a half-sandwich for $5).
While the five sandwich options are the least of Irene's charms, our favorite (and Charlie's) is the Chicharrones plate, which is a sauté of roasted pork, seasoned onions and lightly fried sweet potato rounds on a toasted roll. The avocado sopa del día was an unexpectedly golden vegetable broth with an island of firm, white potato chunks at the center of a generous bowl. A combination of tomato or potato purée, and a bit of olive oil, might be the secret behind its silky base, where bits of diced avocado, cilantro and onion make themselves more well-known. Rich and flavorful, and confirmed to be animal-product free, it's one of the house specialties. Soup seems to be one of Irene's passions, and each so far has proved a creative and satisfying departure from the mostly meat-and-potatoes menu.
The ingredients are familiar, especially to fans of south-of-the-border cuisine. But the less-familiar flavors of South America come though in the details: garnishing most plates are thick slices of fried plantains (a starchy, tropical red banana), and sweet potatoes of both the yam and yucca varieties make frequent appearances. Peeled and cut into strips fried in oil, their subtly sweet taste and distinct texture lean more toward the carrot family than that of the starchy potato. Think vegetable rather than French fry, and you might be pleasantly surprised.
One of the things that distinguishes Irene's cooking from that of her Mexican peers is the absence of lard, and an emphasis on root vegetables and sauces rather than refried beans and cheese. Food is prepared exclusively with canola and olive oil, which give a light touch even to the fajita-style lomo saltado (a sauté of prime beef, bell pepper and yellow onion strips; $12 dinner) and perne con yuca (grilled pork tenderloin lightly seasoned and served with yucca fries; $14 dinner). Meats here are best described as casera style, which is to say they have a home-cooked character. Perhaps a little drier or leaner than we're accustomed to in restaurant cooking, but a healthy alternative.
It may sound odd, but one of the best ways to bring out the flavor of the meat is to order one of Irene's exotic fruit nectars (not to be confused with the neon-colored sodas, which are lovely but don't contain an ounce of actual juice). The other is to make use of the table's only condiment, a Peruvian salsa of finely diced aji (an imported pepper indigenous to the Andean highlands), cilantro (the main ingredient), red onion and tomato spiked with lime. Once your taste buds adjust to Irene's earthier palette of flavors, you'll find these dishes are more complex than they at first appear. To return to the date versus mate analogy, these are recipes suffused with natural beauty and character; nothing artificial, and not an ounce of pretension coming out of the kitchen.
There are few disguises here, and that's what I love about the food: it draws its flavor from exactly the ingredients you read on the menu and see on the table. Which isn't to say Irene doesn't have a few tricks up her sleeve, like the "Peruvian sauce" of the pollo culantro ($12 dinner), a bright lemon-cilantro dressing awash over a lean breast of broiled chicken. An appetizer of Papa a la Huancaina ($5) smothers cold slices of peeled potato under a semi-secret Peruvian dressing that includes mild goat cheese, black pepper, cilantro, and the mild to medium bite of aji. Topped with bright tomatoes, it's enough to share with a table of four.
A basket of soft rolls distinctively prepared a la plancha (literally, "from the iron") make the perfect accompaniment, the vaguely sweet egg bread suffused with a buttery spread of garlic, butter and aji (so mild you won't even know it's there). The 4-year-old at our table had an insatiable appetite for these flat rounds, and unfettered by the social mores of his adult companions (who with faint regret restrained themselves), he walked out with one in each hand.
All entrees are served with basmati rice (quasi-Spanish style, with the naturally nut-flavored grains lightly fried in olive oil before cooking); a cup of stewed pinto beans (firm and flavorfully infused with garlic, black pepper and onion); bread and choice of soup or salad. I highly recommend the soup, whatever it happens to be that day; but the salad is a perfectly respectable melange of black beans, red onion and spices (cumin among them) dressed in a light vinaigrette and served on a bed of lettuce with a bit of super-marinated tomato for color. These side dishes alone would make for a fine vegetarian repast, but Irene's also features two entrees acceptable even for vegans.
It didn't sound like much on the menu, but the seasoned banana squash, called locro ($9, dinner), was a delightful surprise in taste and presentation. More savory than sweet, this golden plate of baked squash, potato, sweet onion and bell pepper, heaped over a garnish of corn on the cob and served with a mesa of basmati rice, was a perfect end to summer (and a nod to Peru's Inca Indian heritage, whose descendants make up around half of the country's population). There's also an entrée of mixed vegetables and "Chinese-style rice," called chiffa.
The only hint of Lima's coastline comes in the distinctively different ensalada de atún, which showers fresh lime juice on a mash of albacore tuna and potato ($5, served on a bed of lettuce).
Even the desserts here are relatively light, with a homemade flan (rumored to be out of this world) and a thick arroz con leche. We tried the rice pudding, and were not disappointed with its twice-cooked texture, which was more grainy than creamy. Liberally studded with cinnamon and raisins, and finished with sweetened evaporated milk, it's true comfort food. Top it off with a chocolately dark roast of Peruvian coffee, served black or with steamed milk in a bottomless cup.
Brightly woven tablecloths and embossed copper plates with Inca gods and Andean farmers have replaced the contemporary art leanings of Irene's predecessor café, and the nightlife here has vaulted from jazz and poetry to salsa dancing and stand-up comedy. Children will find a welcome reception, sometimes even from one of their peers (Irene and Charlie have five of their own, including nephews, and they know a thing or two about keeping kids happy at the lunch or dinner table).
The lunch crowd has grown steadily in a short time (daily specials, plus a $3 discount on all dinner entrees, make prices comparable to other downtown eateries); and though the evening crowd has been slow to trickle in, the couple had a full house for their first guests from L.A.'s Comedy Store two weeks ago. The bar's black-and-white dance floor has similarly started gathering momentum with KXCI deejay-hosted Salsa Saturday nights. A piano in the dining room hints at other plans for evening entertainment as well. A full bar features Guinness and local Nimbus beer on tap, organic Chilean wines by the glass, and an imported dry brandy called pisco, which Charlie describes as "Peru's tequila."
With its arid plains and foothills, fertile river valleys and patches of desert stretching into the rocky Andean highlands, the Peruvian landscape -- and resulting agriculture -- have a few things in common with the Sonoran desert region. With a menu that's simultaneously familiar and exotic, this understated café-restaurant should find a warm reception among locals hungry for a mild twist on the regional fare.