Inka Trails: A Trip to the Andes on Route 66

Sandwiched between a New York pizzeria and a Shell gas station, most people probably miss Inka Trails unless they’re driving at a bumper-to-bumper crawl. This is a shame. There on Foothill Boulevard, just shy of the westernmost border of Claremont, resides the home to the narrowest parking lot known to man and possibly the best restaurant in Claremont.

As Claremont is not exactly a culinary goldmine, the fact that our town even has a Peruvian restaurant is astounding. Peruvian fare is one of the more accessible ethnic cuisines for less adventuresome palates, but also full of diverse dishes that challenge brave diners who yearn for peculiar combinations and their day’s worth of calories in one dish. Inka Trails, the 11-year-old product of owner Patty Rodriguez’s lifelong dream, is an excellent introduction to Peruvian cuisine—its menu covers all the country’s culinary highlights in a relaxing, slightly formal setting at prices that are a tad on the expensive side for students but a bargain for the quality of the experience and quantity of delicious food. Peru’s diverse geography contributes to the wonderful variety in its food; its long coastline lends itself to seafood dishes, while the rugged heights of the Andes call for hearty meat stews. Some of the food is terrific, some merely forgettable.

However, nothing at Inka Trails disappoints. This is not the most refined restaurant in Claremont, but it is certainly the most consistently pleasant place to dine.

A visit to Inka Trails requires sharing the enormous plates to sample as many of the unique flavors as possible. Two dishes, however, are must-orders. The ceviche mixto is hands down the restaurant’s premiere dish. Chilled sole, shrimp, calamari, and mussels saturated in lime juice mingle atop a bed of lettuce, accompanied by a small sweet potato sphere and a somewhat bland russet potato sphere on the side. The dish is excellent: it’s ceviche in its purest form, without any of the fireworks that sushi chefs in L.A. now seem to deem necessary. After a few bites ceviche can get repetitive, but the corn nuts that top Inka Trail’s version add some life through their crunch.

Lomo saltado is also obligatory, if not for any other reason than the novelty of tasting French fries as an ingredient instead of a side dish. The dish is basically a stir-fry in which the fries serve a rice-like role in complementing the top sirloin strips, sautéed onions, and tomatoes; the rice sits naked on the side as if part of a Hawaiian plate lunch. The beef is tender, although the broth tastes identical to mu shu pork at any Americanized Chinese restaurant, and while the French fries sound like a brilliant culinary trick, they end up sadly soggy. The saltado is also offered with chicken or an intriguing seafood mix that surprisingly weakens the dominating mu shu flavor better than the beef.

The saltado also exemplifies two important components of Peru’s cuisine. Potatoes are everywhere in Peruvian dishes, possibly used to fortify the Incas durings their high-altitude Andean treks. The appetizer papa a la huancaina proves that potatoes can be more than just a side starch, here served with a creamy cheese sauce. It’s essentially a haute version of nachos. Also, for some reason there is a heavy Chinese influence on the Peruvian diet—so strong that the hybrid cuisine has its own name, chifa. There isn’t an especially large Chinese population in Lima; it’s not like China was once a Peruvian colony in the way that Indonesian food has become the second cuisine of the Netherlands. Peruvians simply seem to have taken to chow mein and won tons.

Then it’s no surprise that fried rice, known as arroz chaufa in Peru, makes an appearance at Inka Trails. There is no exotic catch with this fried rice. It’s the same MSG-laden, greasy fried rice found across America at Chinese restaurants in every mini-mall, though a little more refined than most, served with more egg than usual and either chicken, beef, or shrimp.

Long before quinoa became the macrobiotic darling of the yoga generation, the Peruvians ground the tiny, protein-rich grain into an almost pasty texture, a process done perfectly by Inka Trails; the quinoa accompanies moist pieces of chicken. Yet other chicken dishes are less successful. Aji de Gallina consists of shredded chicken topped with a somewhat weak, very creamy walnut gravy and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. The Peruvians enjoy their Italian cuisine as well, I guess.

The hearty stews are terrific choices to fortify hikers at Machu Picchu or students before Eurotrash, whether it’s the deeply flavored seco de carne with perfectly tender beef, or the impossibly delicate sole, sudado de pescado, in a broth of onions and tomatoes. Servers will ask the spice level you desire. As I learned by going all out with the sudado, “hot” equals the Sonoran Desert, requiring a gallon of water per diner.

If you just ran a marathon, then the monstrous sirloin steak—an Andre the Giant-sized portion—comes topped with a fried egg and a fried plantain for good measure. The most memorable taste of the night, though, will be your first, where in place of the usual bland butter, bread comes with a killer aji amarillo sauce, an exciting but not over-the-top alarm clock for your taste sensations.

Desserts are run-of-the-mill chocolate cake and banal flan that don’t particularly look or taste exciting, especially after walking by them in their refrigerated case en route to the restroom.

Adults can enjoy a very modestly sized and priced wine list with an excellent Tabernero cabernet and merlot blend from Peru’s Chincha Valley, or perhaps a glass of sangria that almost seems based in sparkling red wine. Someone must order a glass of the chichi morada, a favorite, very sweet Peruvian drink made by boiling down purple maize.

The room is comfortable, adorned with various Incan crafts and tapestries. The glass tabletops, however, make the atmosphere feel a tad sterile. Crowds tend to be the same type every night: a few awkward couples with each partner hoping the other will start the conversation, long tables of local Peruvians celebrating birthdays, and a few inquisitive foodie types picking and prodding at each dish. Service is far from polished, but very helpful and friendly. Unfortunately, pacing is a little too fast, with our entrees arriving after three bites of the appetizer.

Ultimately, in a city often considered a culinary wasteland, we are very lucky to have a Peruvian restaurant in our midst. Visiting it made me want to book my ticket to Cuzco now.

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