Ceviche de Camarones
Prior to the opening of its long-delayed storefront restaurant on Cottage Grove Road, Surco Peruvian existed as a food cart of no small renown. Its aji de gallina, a dish of creamy shredded chicken over rice, was a delicious bargain when I trekked over to Library Mall for a weekday lunch awhile back.
But I'd seen Surco come up short in a couple of food cart festival appearances, showing up late and running out early. When the renovation process in the former Antojitos el Toril space took three months, and then nine months, and then an entire year, I wrote the restaurant off as the final chapter in a history of miscalculation.
Imagine my surprise, and relief, at the result of that year's effort. Surco Peruvian Restaurant clinches the hallmarks of that nation's cuisine in the way no other kitchen in Madison has, at least not reliably.
The aji de gallina remains terrific. Shredded chicken blended with cheese and mild yellow chilis isn't much to look at, but it's hearty and just a little piquant. Rice and potatoes round out the dish with typically Peruvian starchy flair.
Even better is the lomo saltado al pisco, another Peruvian standby served over rice. Generous hunks of grilled beef tenderloin, luxurious in a soy-sauce-centric glaze, remind you exactly why it's called tenderloin. Bell peppers and onions don't put up a fight; they're cooked just right to complement the beef. And the requisite french fries -- starch on starch, y'all.
There are more starches available as sides. Fried yucca sticks are dense but crisp, and when it comes to dunking things in Surco's sauces, any excuse is a good one. Sweet potato fries can sog out and underwhelm, but these maintain a decent level of crunch. The choclo, behemoth kernels of a Peruvian corn varietal, is worth trying once, but man, you get worn out gnawing on all that starch after a while.
Of course, the fruits of the sea must appear on any self-respecting Peruvian menu. Surco gets its seafood shipments daily, and the pescado a lo macho unloads almost all of them. Shrimp, clams, mussels and octopus (when it's in) accompany an excellent pan-fried halibut in a red chili cream sauce.
The seafood that isn't fried or stewed is given over to the culinary magic that is ceviche. Permutations of raw shrimp, octopus, white fish and calamari are marinated in a sharp, citrusy leche de tigre tinted with more of those yellow and red chilis. The baby octopus (served from the waist down, as it were) and calamari rings in my ceviche mixto were tender enough, but the shrimp was perfect, its flesh giving way with only the slightest pop. The whitefish was uneven; some pieces were just right, but others were mushy, and others cut a bit too close to the bloodline.
The whitefish ceviche is a problem, but a bigger problem at Surco is, well, its bigness. Whereas my older complaints about Surco revolved around portion shortages, the new Surco is making up for lost time -- to excess.
Take the sandwiches. They're great. A roasted pork sandwich with just the right amount of caramelized crust, plus red onion, sweet potato and red chili-cheese sauce? Delicious. Chicken breast that's actually juicy, topped with mayo, avocado, bacon and red bell pepper? Yep, it works. And oh, man, that beef tenderloin, turned into a lomo saltado sandwich? I'm surprised there weren't french fries in the thing.
But they're all way too big. And as a result, they're too expensive; the lomo saltado sandwich hits $14 on the dinner menu. (It's $12 on the lunch menu, with no discernible difference save the time of day.) They're so good, they almost justify the sticker shock. But prices have been creeping up all over the menu since Surco opened, and that's a disconcerting trend.
On the plus side, the starters are big enough to be meals. Both the anticuchos (skewered beef heart, perhaps a touch too chewy) and the papa a la huancaina (boiled potatoes with a trio of colorful, flavorful sauces) were more than enough to share. Snack on some cancha to start -- the menu also calls them Andean corn nuts, accurately enough -- and enjoy a cinnamony chicha morada, Peru's fruity, purple answer to Mexico's horchata. That gives you a light, fresh and not too expensive meal.
Surco is a joy to visit, between the pleasant service and the charming interior. Prices and portions need to get under control, but you won't find better Peruvian in town.