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What's Cookin' Behind the Curtain - Perusing Some Peruvian

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Every Friday, LAist is taking you on a trip down to Orange County to uncover the unique dining experiences that await adventurous eaters willing to explore beyond the county line.

A few years ago, I spent a couple of weeks in Peru. Like most tourists that visit, I backpacked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu (which was one of the most spec-TAC-ular things I’ve ever done). But I also had a chance to spend some time in the cities of Cusco and Lima, absorbing the culture with the help of some local friends who provided an insider’s guide of sorts.

One of the things that stuck out to me was the friendliness and welcoming nature of the Peruvian people (which was obviously aided by having locals with us). At all the places we visited, whether restaurants, bars, shops, or street vendors, it seemed everyone made us feel at home; well, other than the guys who mugged my friend outside of a fútbol match at the Estadio Nacional. Although we were thousands of miles away from home, it felt very familiar.

So when I went to Inka Mama’s in Foothill Ranch this past week, I felt like I was revisiting those days in Peru, minus the thieves. Tucked in a typical Orange County strip mall between a Staples and a Jo-Ann Fabric & Crafts store, Inka Mama’s doesn’t necessarily replicate an authentic Peruvian dining experience, but does possess an environment in which diners are wholly welcomed and served authentic homestyle dishes.

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True to the cultural influences of Peruvian cuisine, which include the ancient Incans, Spanish conquistadors, and more recent Asian immigrants, the restaurant features a thorough menu covering chicken, beef, seafood, and vegetable dishes. Traditional preparation often employs slow-cooking methods like stewing and steaming, which produce tender cuts of meat and retain the flavor of the ingredients, and this is seen in many of the dishes.

I asked my server to pick out one of the house specialties for me, and she pointed me to the cabrito norteño, or stewed lamb. Typically, I do not particularly care for the unique taste that lamb has, but I was willing to give it a try. In this dish, the lamb was cooked in a wine sauce with cilantro and garlic, and topped with lime-marinated red onions. As you can imagine, the distinct flavor of the lamb was somewhat muted against the equally sharp flavors of these other items, creating a highly savory combination, and one that I actually enjoyed eating. The stewing of the lamb resulted in extremely tender meat which practically fell off the bone, though without the texture and structure of the meat breaking down into mush. It also allowed for extremely quick turnaround since the meat had clearly been cooking for a long time in preparation for service. The lamb was served with large side orders of white beans and white rice, perfect for absorbing the sauce.

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Of course it wouldn’t have been a Peruvian dinner without a traditional drink. Since I still had a long drive home, a Pisco Sour was out of the question, but I did get myself a glass of chicha morada, the traditional corn-based drink. If you’ve never had it, it has the color of Manischewitz wine, but a thicker consistency closer to cough syrup (though not quite that thick). From that description, it doesn’t sound particularly appealing, but it tastes kind of like fruit punch, except if Kool-Aid used purple corn instead of artificial sweeteners. Trust me, it's yummy. It was a nice refreshing palate cleanser from the robust flavors of my entrée.

Inka Mama’s was started by two immigrant sisters who brought many of their family recipes with them from their homeland. When I was in there, one of the sisters was mingling with the guests, clearly familiar with many of the patrons (both White and Latino) that appeared to be regulars. What I appreciated was the fact that the sisters had purposely tried to cultivate an atmosphere that felt more like dining as a guest in someone’s home, as opposed to being a faceless customer in a restaurant. This was also reflected in the décor of the restaurant; the walls are adorned with Peruvian artifacts and oil paintings representing typical aspects of Peruvian life, while diners eat at simple wooden tables on tile floors.

Since my travel schedule isn’t what it used to be, it’s always nice to be momentarily taken back to the amazing places that I’ve had the opportunity to visit in the past. These Inka Mamas were clearly successful in jarring those memories for me, and for giving others a little taste of place totally worth visiting.

Inka Mama’s also has a second location in Aliso Viejo which opened earlier this year.

Inka Mama’s
26676 Portola Parkway, Suite B
Foothill Ranch, CA 92610

All photos by Ryan Young for LAist