1140 Camino Del Mar, Del Mar
“Once, I had a secret love/ That lived within the heart of me./ All too soon, my secret love/ Became impatient to be free.” So sang Doris Day in the Eisenhower-era film Calamity Jane. My own not-so-secret love for Peruvian cuisine dates to a Nixon-era road trip from California to Tierra del Fuego on the Pan Am “Highway” (bwaah-ha-ha!, with its 1000-plus miles of slippery cliff-edge Andean mud and gravel). The two cuisines that won my top Pan American Idol honors were Mexican and Peruvian, the two most complex, nuanced, and, yes, spicy, of the cuisines I tasted along the route.
Café Secret doesn’t look Peruvian. “It’s like a British cottage in the Cotswolds,” said my pal Fred, “someplace where Miss Marple might live.” But on closer approach it’s much larger, inside and out — in fact, it’s got a four-room B&B attached to it. On one of those record-heat Indian summer days, the large, well-lighted front patio was the prime seating area (the cozy interior is better suited to winter).
Fred’s coworker Flor had already arrived and claimed us a spacious four-top. A lovely chilanga (from Mexico City), she’d never tasted Peruvian cuisine before, and neither had Fred. We began with a cooling round of chicha morada, a non-alcoholic cider made from purple corn, fruits, and cinnamon. Sad to say, Secret’s version was a thin, fruity juice, short on cinnamon. (Both Latin Chef in PB and Q’ero in Encinitas make more full-flavored renditions.) The wine list was in the throes of revision, so the waiter simply recited available choices, which included a sturdy, affordable screw-top Argentine Torrontes. We had a rather long wait for it. Service proved charming but leisurely, a little disorganized.
As we waited, we nibbled canchitos, salted corn kernels roasted until firm and nutty. When our appetizers arrived, I realized I’d way over-ordered, expecting that starters would be small plates, not laden platters. A popular dish from Huancayo (a small Andean city south of Cuzco at 11,000 feet), Papitas con Yuca a la Huancaina consists of crisp-fried yucca root strips and burly slabs of roast potato (you call those papitas — “little potatoes?” Ahem!). They’re robed in a smooth, creamy, slightly tangy and surprisingly light white cheese sauce made with Mexican queso fresco — a better choice than the too-dry, too-tangy feta cheese that some stateside restaurants substitute for the unavailable llama cheese. The little pica of hot pepper was welcome, as was the crunchy texture of the yucca amending the more typical all-potato version. Quibble: the dish shouldn’t be white, as here, but golden, a color much valued in Inca cuisine, from a yellow leaf called palillo, or yellow chilies (ají amarillo) — or even a pinch of turmeric.
We returned to sea level with the Ceviche Mixto, a lime-spiked mixture of blanched shellfish and sea bass, plus citrus-pickled onions with a pleasant nip of hot pepper and soothing baked sweet-potato slices. The array includes a huge, tentacled prawn in the shell, a scallop and a mussel on their shells, plus firm shrimp and rather chewy calamari rings. The big prawn looks like an undersea monster threatening Captain Jack Sparrow. Treat it like a crawfish: break it at the waist, cut open the center-line, and gobble the tail-meat. Arrgh!
The waiter delivered our dish of Causa with apparent pride. It’s small but intense: pressed potatoes layered with crab meat, Peruvian pepper aioli, and avocado slices, with a couple of salty shrimp on the side. This is luxury food, a spud foie gras from the land where potatoes were domesticated. It’s slightly spicy when eaten at the restaurant, but grows fiery in the doggie-box overnight.
Budget travelers, bide-a-wee here. The above dishes constitute a delicious, fulfilling dinner for two for $57 (plus bevs, tip, tax, of course). But entrées are reasonable, too (averaging about $20), and even more gargantuan. There are only four choices on the printed menu, but a chalkboard lists the day’s specials, and attention must be paid. That’s where we found the splendid Chupe (seafood chowder), clunking with denizens of the deep (the same gang as in the ceviche), and packing a little heat, too. It soothes and inflames simultaneously — coastal cooking worthy of a good restaurant in Lima. If you love Mexican soups, it’s something like Vuelve a la Vida but with a thicker broth. Unfortunately, it made our fine Pescado a lo Macho (sautéed snapper with scallops, mussels, shrimp, and squid in a creamy pepper sauce) rather redundant.
I found our third entrée problematic. While I’ll do anything for a good Causa, I’d go anywhere to find a great Ají de Gallina (hen with peppers) like the one I ate in Cuzco: tender chicken in a thick, golden, incendiary sauce of garlic, onions, breadcrumbs, milk, chicken stock, ground walnuts, Parmesan cheese, and hot peppers, all served over potatoes, hard-cooked egg, a few Kalamata-style olives, with a side of rice. (While “ají is a generic word for all manner of chili peppers in South America, hot or mild, “Ah-hee!” is how the word should be pronounced for the Cuzqueño renditions.) While working on my first cookbook, Totally Hot, I gathered a half-dozen recipes for the dish, including a handwritten version from a friend’s abuela in Cuzco. They were all pretty similar, so I went mainly with grannie’s version.
But Peruvian restaurants in San Diego don’t seem to follow this recipe tradition. It’s one thing to cool it out a little for the gringos, but remember Clara (“Where’s the beef?”) Peller? Well, where’s the ají? The dish is way too mild and creamy at Q’ero, still too mild at Latin Chef, and too mild and dry at Café Secret. Fred and Flor, ají-virgins with no expectations, both liked it quite a lot. This rendition is a heap of none-too-tender chicken breast strips with a tart flavor, minimal sauce, and no real heat, with whole walnuts rather than ground ones, all flung over the requisite tater-and-egg accompaniments with a single cured olive on top. There isn’t even any hot sauce at the tables to amend it. (Maybe they make one, but it wasn’t offered, and if they have bottled Mexican hot sauces, you don’t want them anyway for Peruvian dishes — Peru’s fiery rocoto chili is a remote cousin to Mexico’s chilies, with a different flavor.)
Alternative entrée choices include poached snapper with white wine sauce and quinoa pilaf, and a popular dish drawn from Lima’s long-standing Chinese community, lomo saltado, stir-fried beef strips with soy-based sauce, here with yucca fries rather than the more traditional french fries. Spinach-and-cheese ravioli with pesto provides a vegetarian option — yes, urbane Lima abounds in Italian restaurants.
For dessert, we were tempted by tres leches cake and by key lime meringue pie, but we finally chose the divine alfajore, a large, light, and crumbly cookie stuffed with dulce de leche. The espresso is from Illy, so who could ask for more?
I could, of course — more spice, more authenticity. Still, this is a charming, comfortable environment to discover Peruvian cuisine for yourself. I prefer the cooking at the tiny Latin Kitchen in Pacific Beach, where the owner is a stickler for authenticity and goes to great lengths to buy Peruvian spices and peppers. But if you’re looking for creature comforts in which to casually explore an exciting new cuisine, Café Secret is no secret anymore. ■
★★★ (Very Good)
1140 Camino Del Mar (11th Street), Del Mar, 858-792-0821; cafesecret.com
HOURS: Tuesday 7:30 a.m.–6:00 p.m.; Wednesday–Sunday until 9:00 p.m.
PRICES: Appetizers and salads $10–$18; entrées $16–$22; desserts $6–$8.
CUISINE & BEVERAGES: Reasonably authentic, slightly upscale Peruvian cuisine, loads of seafood, most dishes with a nip of spice, in generous servings. Wine list under revision, with international bottlings, including affordable Argentine and South African choices, plus Peruvian beer, chicha morada (corn-based juice).
PICK HITS: Ceviche; Papitas con Yuca a la Huancaina; Causa; Pescado a lo Macho; Chupe de Camarones (special); Alfajores (cookies). Lunch menu includes several empanadas.
NEED TO KNOW: Large portions, with most appetizers and entrées enough to feed two or even three. Check chalkboard for specials. Spacious front patio with heaters is most comfortable seating, weather permitting. (Interior rather too “cozy,” with many tables in a small space.) Breakfast room upstairs. Leisurely service. Three substantial lacto-vegetarian dishes.