True Peru

Miraflores' fare is variable, but it's always earthy and honest.

Like most Latin and South American nations, Peru has its own tumultuous history of colonization. Not surprisingly, Peru's culinary customs showcase a vibrant blend of many traditions, from those of its own indigenous people, to European (mostly Spanish), Chinese, African and even eastern Indian. The cuisine of Peru, then, feels like a natural fit for us hungry borderland mongrels, who thrive in a cultural crucible.

Certainly Stella Beebe had a fine idea when she opened Miraflores, a "fine Peruvian and Latin American" restaurant. It is refreshing to walk through the door of this venue and find a room that is plain and simple. No sleek, tony concept, just some tables, a few friendly faces and the comforting smell of fried bananas.

Miraflores' menu is ambitious in its scope. One could easily build a lively and varied meal from the appetizer section alone. Over a couple of visits, we sampled the appetizers widely to place a finger on the pulse of the restaurant.

There is something understated and simple about the fare. This isn't the "idea" of a cuisine, an oft-maligned cause that haunts American culinary trends, but the real deal. For example, the Causa a la Criolla ($4.95) is a handsome salute to the Peruvian potato. This crispy little cake of whipped potato is tossed in cornmeal, fried, then stuffed with a simple and savory combination of meat, raisin and hard boiled egg. Comforting and simple, this is worth trying.

If browsing and nibbling appeals, then be sure to request at least one order of the Platanos Maduros Fritos ($2.95). These fragrant and golden wedges of plantain are fried until crispy and served with the traditional dipping sauce made from jalapeño, cilantro and onion. An incendiary dip of creamy green sauce offsets the golden, slightly oily fried banana with a searing bite and a milky finish.

The deep-fried yucas (not to be confused with the local yucca, it's pronounced "jooka") are a Peruvian root vegetable that put any normal potato to shame. Crisp, tender and sweet, these chubby little fellows are sure to be popular with the younger crowd. The Green Corn Tamale ($2.95) was an odd interpretation since it was virtually green. This didn't have much to do with using fresh corn as it did an inordinate amount of cilantro. A dry and thick wedge of tamale with no discernable additions, this seemed odd. Authentic? Most likely.

The Ceviche Mixto ($7.95) was a good ceviche, but nothing remarkable. Served on the ubiquitous chunk of potato and dressed up with a wedge of corn, our ceviche was mostly tender fish, a generous portion of octopus, a few scallops and one shrimp buried under a heap of marinated red onion.

Although many of the appetizers are appealing, not all is golden. Be wary of the Anticuchos ($5.95). Billed as three skewers of an "Incan delicacy," this was one moment of authenticity I would prefer to have been forewarned about. A small plate of delicate meat slivers was served with potato and corn; one bite assured us that this was clearly organ meat. Upon pressing our server for additional information, he grinned and said, "Ah, yes, the heart of the baby cow. Did you enjoy it?" Words failed us.

In general, however, the service was friendly and helpful. On one visit, though, a weekend night, the place was slammed and we felt rushed and hurried.

The dining room is small and no pretense is made toward ambiance. The walls are lavender; oilcloths are on the table; mismatched chairs give the room a used and friendly feel. Still, the happy babble from tables, loud music and general din give the feel of a loose and wobbly party.

Back to the menu, the Aji de Gallina ($6.95) is a delicate dish: shredded chicken lightly sautéed in a creamy, golden sauce, a combination of walnut, bread and milk gravy. This dish is austere and simple in its presentation and range. A scoop of white rice, an unsalted olive, half a hard-boiled egg and a scoop of the aji made for a delicate and simple statement.

The short ribs ($13.95), however, was a dish I wouldn't revisit. A stringy and rangy cut of meat was drowned in a loose tomato sauce. Random various vegetables got involved: naturally corn and potatoes, and a few leathery peas. Overall, this tasted greasy.

Of the many seafood offerings the Chupe de Camarones ($9.95) was a comforting find. A dreamy pink, this large bowl of fish soup was studded with shrimp, rice and egg, delicately seasoned with a clear note of oregano. This is a soup that is sure to comfort. The Arroz con Mariscos ($9.95) was a bit of a disappointment. A large mound of rice mixed with a tomato broth mixed with a healthy blend of fish, scallops and shrimp was filling, but tasted fairly bland.

The Rotisserie Chicken is the restaurant's specialty, marinated with a unique blend of herbs and spices, then "slow cooked to perfection" in an oven imported from Peru. We were assured this was one of the restaurant's stand-out dishes, offered in varying portions: a quarter chicken ($4.95), half ($7.95) or whole ($10.95). For all the hoopla, we were underwhelmed. The crispy bit of tough and gamy bird we received had clearly seen a better day. Perhaps we sampled the chicken on a bad day, but this wasn't a dish we'd try again. Which is sad, since there are plenty of other dishes that struck us as authentic, and this should be one of them.

Desserts are a limited and eclectic selection. The flan ($3.50) and the Arroz con Leche ($3.50) are the two specialties that our waiter recommended. Although we found the flan to be a little too eggy and rubbery, the Arroz con Leche was delightful. Suffused with cinnamon, the delicate and creamy dessert wasn't too sweet. The creamy textures, the pleasant surprise of random raisin, and the cooling creamy flavors made this a light and delightful way to conclude the meal.

Miraflores is certainly worth a visit. It will be interesting to see how Tucson greets such a venue. Gritty in its honesty and apparently guileless as to any agenda or intent, this is real food for real people. The earthy and honest cuisine of Miraflores may not appeal those who seek the trendy or the highly priced reassurance of fare that signals to the world an "educated" palate. This is quiet and simple sustenance directly from the heartland.

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