Sometimes you have to appreciate the beauty of simplicity. Do one thing, and do it well.
It seems that so many restaurants these days are trying to please everyone, creating menus that are veritable tomes and doling out overly large portions of mediocrity. Our collective palate has been so dulled by sodium- and preservative-drenched foods that simply prepared dishes featuring just a handful of fresh ingredients are overlooked by most.
Inca's Peruvian Cuisine is, in one word, simple—but the seemingly endless combinations of potatoes, chicken, beef and rice are all unique in their preparation and flavor. The chicharrón de pollo appetizer ($6.50) is a perfect illustration of attention to detail and contrast between a few simple flavors. Chunks of chicken, lightly seasoned and deep-fried—some still on the bone—are delivered still sizzling-hot on a plate with a ramekin of lime juice spiced with pepper. Nothing more, nothing less. The chicken, while tender and moist on its own, takes on a whole new flavor profile with a little dip into the lime juice. The tartness of the sauce counteracts the fatty, crisp skin of the chicken, creating a crispy little flavor bomb.
The pollo entero (slow-roasted chicken: $7.50 for a quarter-chicken meal, $9.50 for a half-chicken meal, and $18.99 for a whole chicken meal; a whole chicken, plain, is $10) is also a lesson in simplicity. Each bite offered a balance between the moist smokiness of the meat and crispy saltiness of the skin. The fries and the salad were unremarkable in contrast, and the salad dressing was heavy on the mustard.
Though there is a woeful lack of seafood dishes on the menu—after all, Peru has more than 1,400 miles of coastline—both of the seafood dishes we tried were delicious. The ocopa de camarón ($9), an appetizer of potatoes, shrimp and peanut sauce, sounded like a strange combination at first, but proved to be a surprising and delightful dish; the peanut sauce packed a surprisingly spicy punch. The only strange part of the dish was the temperature—the potatoes were cold; the shrimp was hot; and the peanut sauce was room temperature. At first, the cold potatoes were a bit off-putting, but after a few bites, I didn't notice anymore. The ceviche mixto ($14.99) is some of the best ceviche in Tucson, which is no small feat. Pieces of squid, fish and whole shrimp were perfectly marinated in the tangy citrus until just tender. Over-marinate the fish, and it's chewy; under-marinate the fish, and it's still raw. This was right on the mark. The sweet, creamy yam and starchy Peruvian corn were wonderful accompaniments to the tart ceviche.
Though the menu is dominated by chicken dishes, the beef at Inca is also noteworthy. The seco de carne con frijoles ($10) was tender and flavorful, served with a generous portion of canary beans and rice, and a mild, fresh-tasting cilantro sauce. However, it was outshined by the lomo saltado ($9.50), a Peruvian-style stir fry of sirloin strips, tomatoes and onions, served over rice and french fries. The marinated sirloin was a bit salty on its own, but combined with the rest of the ingredients, it was fabulous.
Though the food easily stands on its own, Inca's offers a truly unique selection of Peruvian beverages, including chicha morada, a nonalcoholic drink made from the concentrated cooking liquid from purple corn ($2.50 for a glass, $8.50 for a pitcher). Slightly reminiscent of a mulled cider, it's sweet, spicy and refreshing. You do have to ask for ice if you prefer it more chilled, though. There's also Inca Kola (a nuclear-yellow Peruvian soda that smells and tastes like fruity bubblegum) as well as the famous pisco sour, which Inca's bartenders make one at a time, by hand, with whole egg whites and a generous pour of pisco. We also tried the flan-like crema volteada ($6) for dessert, which was rich, sticky, caramel-y and far too much for one person to eat. The lúcuma ice cream ($6) looked interesting, but by the time dessert came around on our second visit, we were too stuffed to try the treat made from the subtropical fruit.
Though the menu at Inca's is simply meat-and-potatoes (with a few variations here and there), the food shines due to the attention to detail, the fresh ingredients and the unique flavor combinations. The quick, friendly service is welcome, too.