Fifteen years ago, Roosevelt Avenue—the border between Elmhurst and Jackson Heights from the BQE east to Junction Boulevard—was mainly Colombian. But as successive waves of Mexican and Ecuadorian immigrants arrived, the complexion of the street changed. Now, with the further appearance of Argentine, Uruguayan, and Venezuelan businesses along the commercial strip, the moniker “Little Latin American” can be justly conferred.
Stroll along the lively thoroughfare in the deep shadow of the elevated 7 train, and feel like you’re in Quito or Caracas. Street vendors fry blood sausages and pork skins, stalls flog discount ropas and zapatos with a merchandising style distinctly un-Wal-Mart, lunch counters vend tongue tacos and hot dogs topped with ham and pineapple, and Spanish is the sole language spoken. There are low-life bars and strip clubs, too, along with family-style restaurants of many nationalities—though, as midnight approaches, the street assumes a slightly more menacing aura as late-evening shoppers scurry for the train.
Peruvian restaurants have been the most recent to arrive in numbers, the majority chicken rotisseries with limited menus. Punning on the name of the capital, newcomer Lima Limon is, by contrast, a full-blown restaurant, distinguishing itself by big picture windows that allow you to survey the interior from the street, and a relentlessly green color scheme that casts a pall over the diners’ faces. Lemons are scattered everywhere, stuck in vases and heaped in little piles, even in the bathroom. You’ll find the same emphasis on citrus in the food.
Ceviches are a point of pride, and if you normally hesitate to eat raw fish at a place you’re not entirely familiar with, take my advice and don’t worry here. Leche de tigre (“tiger’s milk,” $10.95) is the best, a tart, milky solution served in a tall soda glass with a pair of sizeable shrimp hanging on the rim for dear life. In the murky depths dredge up baby octopus tentacles, squid rings, ground shrimp, and the occasional hunk of corvina, the most beloved fish in Peru. Did I mention that the concoction is commonly called Peruvian Viagra?
Also in a ceviche vein—though entirely cooked—are burly stuffed mussels (half-dozen, $6), which come lined up like Panzer tanks and stuffed with parti-colored peppers and onions; on the side is a shot glass of lemony marinade. You’ll wish it were rum. If you prefer your seafood stewed, the best choice is picante de mariscos ($13.95), a vast plate resembling a thick French bouillabaisse gone strangely astray. Present are the same constellation of tiny sea creatures, concealed beneath an orange blanket of sauce. Eat it by roughly mashing the potatoes on the bottom with the seafood to make a flavorful pap. Any sauce left over (and there will be plenty) can be mixed with the accompanying rice—one is never at a loss for starch at Lima Limon.
Indeed, as in southern Mexican cooking, thick and colorful gravies of ancient origin are the cuisine’s centerpiece. In common with picante de mariscos, most use spuds as a backdrop. Named after a town high in the Andes, papas a la Huancaína refers to an over-potatoes cheese flow whose canary color is the result of massive amounts of turmeric—accorded Most Important Spice status in Peru. Cheese was introduced to South America by the Conquistadores. Ocopa ($7) is more unusual: potatoes swamped with a green sauce so dark, it verges on slate gray. Huacatay produces the striking color, an herb related to marigold and tarragon that leaves a minty undertaste in the mouth.
This being Queens rather than Peru, meat has an enhanced importance on the menu. The thin-sliced sirloin called churransca is available either pan-sautéed or breaded and fried, both equally delicious. One version features tallarin—lo mein noodles brought to South America by Chinese immigrants, but here resembling spaghetti with melted Texas pimento cheese. The same steak also plays an important part in lomo saltado ($11), strips of meat tossed with sautéed onions, peppers, and French fries. It’s so good, you’ll gobble it down immediately.
You’ll be seduced by the stews offered only on weekends. There’s one made with big hunks of goat, for sure, and another featuring beef and more cilantro than you’ve ever seen in one place before. But for a real Andean treat, try olluquito ($11.75)—beef braised with onions and olluco, a tuber that tastes almost like a potato, but not quite. As you chew it, you’ll notice a strange slippery texture. Not exactly like munching on a lubricated condom, but pretty close.