For years, trend watchers have predicted Peruvian cooking will explode across the American food scene, and this vividly polyethnic cuisine has been getting more play around the country lately.
The place to try it locally is Las Carnitas, although initially nothing about this tiny restaurant located in a Kenner strip mall portends the next big thing. Even its name is a holdover from the previous restaurant at this space. You won't find carnitas, a type of chopped roasted pork, at this Las Carnitas.
Instead, what I found at one meal after the next was persuasive illumination of why Peruvian cuisine should inspire excitement. It's in the distinctive but accessible blend of Asian, European and native Quechua influences and the energy of a cuisine that embraces both the ancient and the contemporary on its plates.
Half of the menu covers Honduran and Nicaraguan dishes. These are fine, but what makes Las Carnitas worth a visit are Peruvian standards like causa rellena, a sculpted cylinder of whipped, golden potatoes striped with a seam of chicken salad and avocado; or lomo saltado, a Chinese/Spanish stir fry with steak, red peppers and a dark, salty gravy wetting down a pile of fries.
Blasts of citrus coat big hunks of raw fish for a masterpiece ceviche that is generous, intense, beautiful and garnished with roasted, oversized kernels of corn. Another staple is papa a la Huancaina, which seems to be a deconstructed potato salad with burly potato logs and boiled eggs draped with creamy, thick, slightly peppery sauce. Order the tallarin verde and you get a thin, square, greasy steak resting over the main event — a tangle of spaghetti with thick, robustly garlicky pesto and roasted potatoes.
Peru's native tuber is always close at hand here, but rice is common too. Chaufa is a direct relation to standard Chinese-style fried rice, though here you can spice it up with some incendiary salsas. For arroz tapado, rice is molded in a tight dome around a chili-like mix of beef and onions, and soft-boiled peanuts and streaks of hot salsa are embedded in chicken tamales the size of burritos.
Traced with aioli here, sprinkled with chopped herbs there and arranged just so on the plate, these dishes follow the contemporary Peruvian flair for presentation, even if they don't seem to fit with the modest setting. Nothing at Las Carnitas is more than $10, not even the whole fried fish.
Beware the unusual hours (no dinner Friday, closed Saturday) and understand that unless you're fluent in Spanish you may have trouble communicating with the nonetheless welcoming waitresses. No matter how you request it though, don't miss the chicha morada, an off-the-menu beverage made from purple corn, cinnamon and clove that looks and tastes like nonalcoholic sangria. Las Carnitas doesn't serve any alcohol, and it doesn't permit diners to bring any from the outside. But exploring flavors like this has a kick all its own.