The cuisine of Peru has begun to achieve the attention it deserves. It's a unique blend of native foods combined with the cuisines of Spanish, Asian and African immigrants. Corn, potatoes and peppers get a lot of play, and Peruvian dishes pack a lot of flavor with their unexpected combinations.
Pollo Inka, Madison's second Peruvian restaurant (third if you count the short-lived El Corral), is nestled into the strip mall at the intersection of High Point and Old Sauk. It's small and decidedly casual, with an open kitchen and friendly staff.
By all means, start with a glass of their self-described "famous" sangría. I can't speak to its fame, but the sangría is among the best I've tried, light and refreshing, a perfect balance of fresh fruit and wine.
For appetizers, we loved the bright green tamalitos verdes, a type of tamale made with ground Peruvian corn, cilantro (lending the dish its color) and chicken, and served with a red onion Creole sauce. Also try the yuquitas a la huancaina, or fried yucca with Peru's beloved huancaina pepper cream sauce.
There was disagreement at our table over the avocado salad, in which slices of avocado are served with tomato and cucumber over thinly shredded lettuce. I fully enjoyed the dressing, which was light and tasted of a good quality olive oil that didn't overshadow the fresh salad veggies; others found the lack of herbs or spicing a little boring.
While there are main dishes of beef, fish and chicken, the beef entrees stood out. Lomo saltado, a standard Peruvian main dish, features slices of beef stir-fried in a soy and wine sauce with tomato, onions and cilantro. This dish was simply excellent, the sauce working beautifully to deepen and intensify the flavor of the beef.
If you favor pasta, try the tallerin verde, where the slices of beef steak are served over linguine in a fragrant basil cream sauce. For the brocheta de lomita, chunks of marinated tenderloin are broiled on a skewer and served over the avocado salad with french fries. The tenderloin was juicy and garlicky, although sadly, the fries were a little soft and fell flat.
Pollo Inka also serves several seafood soups. The parihuela, shrimp, mussels, tilapia and squid in a rich seafood broth, was made even richer with an undertaste of drawn butter, though the squid came out a little tough and overcooked.
As you might guess from its name, Pollo Inka prides itself on its special pollo la brasa, rotisserie chicken, marinated in "15 secret ingredients" and oven-roasted. The menu promises chicken that is "golden, juicy and delicious." On a first visit ours came out crispy brown and, except for the tasty skin, almost too dry to enjoy, the only real disappointment of the night. On a second visit, however, the chicken fully lived up to its promise: tender, moist and pleasantly salty, as a good rotisserie chicken should be.
Do dip your chicken in the aji sauce, a blend of tart mayo flavored with cilantro and jalapeño peppers, that provides a bit of kick.
We finished the meal with two superb desserts. The tres leches cake achieved the perfect level of sweet moistness while preserving the integrity of the cake. And our whole table went crazy for the concoction called Suspiro Inka, a gossamer cloud of meringue and Chantilly cream, flavored with guanabana, a Peruvian fruit that tastes delightfully of mango and lime.
Although there were a few small glitches, the service was relaxed and helpful, and prices are modest. Most of the dinner entrées run $14 to $16. A half chicken is only $6, with sides such as saffron rice, avocado slices, fried potatoes, plantains or yucca available for an additional $3. The lunch menu offers chicken and tilapia with salad and sides for $7. Judging from the Friday night dinner crowd, Pollo Inka has made real inroads into Madison's far-west-side dining scene.