Coney Island Taste Heaps Up the Flavors of Peru
A carload of friends and I had to flee Sheepshead Bay one Sunday evening like escaped prisoners on the lam. We'd started our expedition with the modest expectation of eating in one of the Turkish seafood joints that line the bay's concrete bathtub. What we discovered when we arrived—and saw crowds of diners milling in front of every restaurant—was that not only was it Mother's Day, but Victory Day as well, when Russians commemorate vanquishing the Nazis. Double jinx!
But hope loomed on the horizon. We jumped back into the sputtering Volvo and sped toward Coney Island Avenue, one of the city's best incubators of ethnically diverse eats. After side-winding down Avenue U, we hit the CIA (as its admirers call it) and immediately spotted a few unfamiliar new places: a Peruvian bodega, a Turkish gyro shop, and an Uzbekistani restaurant with lace curtains, which we feared would also be subject to the Mother's-Victory whammy.
By popular acclamation we chose the Peruvian place, Coney Island Taste, even though the windows were plastered with color-copied handbills advertising turkey burgers, fish and chips, and omelets served with home fries and toast—doubtlessly calculated to appeal to the cops at the 61st Precinct station house, directly across the street. Emblazoned "Peruvian American Restaurant," the awning was more promising, and we'd also spotted a hand-lettered sign on the door offering Mother's Day specials of goat stew, mussels ceviche, and cow feet with rice. Bless you, Mom!
Inside, the walls were papered scarlet, with only a handful of tables. A party of gray-haired women occupied three pushed together, and as we sat down, a huge jalea grande ($25) appeared before them, a fried seafood mountain garnished with pickled onions and toasted corn kernels. Encompassing fried corvina, mussels, split blue crabs, calamari rings, shell-on shrimp, and baby octopi, the assortment was so immense that the moms had only finished half by the time we departed. A steam table and counter occupied one corner of the small room, but when a door swung open, we could see the premises also contained a substantial kitchen.
As the patient proprietor took our complicated order, we realized that—despite its dodgy disguise as a forgettable deli—the place was a very serious Peruvian restaurant. The menu was extensive, and as we ticked off dishes, the guy never once said, "We're out of that," which is the trademark of overextended cafés. We began with a pair of those Mother's Day dishes.
Seco de cabrito ("dry goat," $11) may sound unappealing, but the word "seco" here refers not to desiccation, but to a type of South American soup thick enough to be called a stew. As it hit the table, up loomed several substantial hunks of meat surmounted by lime-pickled purple onions—a garnish that goes on nearly everything at Coney Island Taste. On either side spread a lake of beans and enough polished white rice to feed a family.
The mussels ($14) were even better—14 lightly poached specimens in their green-lipped shells, heaped with a fine dice of onions, tomatoes, and chilies. The plate was so perfectly arranged that we didn't want to disturb it. Mother's Day vanquished, we dove into the apps. Unless you're a small kid or hot dog fanatic, skip the salchipapas, a wild toss of french fries and franks carved into squiggles. Named after a mountain town, Papas a la Huancaina ($6) makes a great summer starter, terraced potatoes with a cooling yellow cheese sauce, a vestige of the days when conquistadors introduced European cheese into the Andes—where Indians had already learned to cultivate 60 varieties of spuds, and even freeze-dry them.
You don't really need apps, though, since the entrées are so voluminous. Tripe is available two ways: in a bland Andean cheese sauce, or cooked "Italian-style" with tomatoes, onions, and bay leaves. Served with french fries underneath that sop up the tasty juices, the latter didn't seem too Italian. As at any Peruvian place, you can get a delectable spice-rubbed roast chicken (whole bird, $11), but a heaping plate of Chinese fried rice (arroz chaufa, $11) makes a more interesting main course—one of two dishes brought to South America by immigrant field hands early in the last century, filled with chicken, scallions, and fried eggs chopped up. The other Chinese-Peruvian standard is tallarin—a delightful take on lo mein that comes with tomatoes, onions, soy sauce, and beef. There's also a seafood version, featuring a startlingly diverse catalog of marine creatures.
Or maybe you'd rather just have a cheeseburger?
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