I am rarely at a loss for words. But after a Peruvian meal at La Costeña, I was so impressed with the authenticity, so fully satiated, and so marvelously fascinated by the combination of flavors imbued into each of the many dishes we had, I didn’t even know where to start.
Here’s why. Peruvian cuisine is widely recognized as some of the world’s most unique and diverse because of two main factors. First, its rich biodiversity. Peru is home to at least 80 types of the 104 different biological zones, which means that the abundance and variety of fresh ingredients is unparalleled. Second, Peru is the epitome of cultural fusion. Start with the Incan civilization, throw in the Spanish conquistadores and the African slaves they brought with them during the 1500s, follow that with European immigration in the 1800s, and finish it off with the Far East immigration, namely the Chinese and Japanese, just a few decades later, and you’ve got a true culinary melting pot that is so good, you can only cheer. Yay for Peruvian!
And yay for La Costeña! To find this gem in the heart of Lancaster was almost too much for me to bear. La Costeña is an unassuming restaurant on West King Street that opened roughly eight months ago. You might have passed by a number of times and might have never known it was there. The interior is pleasantly simple, reflecting a Latin flair. The Latin music piping through the speakers helps to transform the space.
It’s a BYO, so we had our white and red, ready for anything we might want to try. As we sipped wine, we noshed on cancha, roasted corn kernels served in a small bowl for the table. The menu is in both Spanish and English, but it was organized in such a way that it was challenging to really understand what each dish entailed. We ordered Ceviche Mixto ($10.25) and Anticucho ($7) as appetizers.
Ceviche is the quintessential Peruvian dish, influenced by the Japanese and their expertise in seafood and all things raw. Raw pieces of seafood - in this case, tilapia, shrimp, squid, and scallops – are combined with red onions and Peruvian chili peppers, also called aji peppers, then marinated and chilled in lime juice. The acidity of the lime will cook the fish so that the translucent flesh becomes opaque. This dish was generous in portion and offered a wonderfully intense flavor that was both tart and spicy.
Anticucho is a popular dish of beef heart, often sold by street vendors. It was largely developed by the African slaves that made the most of the discarded parts of the animals. It is marinated in garlic, chili, cumin, and other spices, and then typically grilled. This was my first foray with Anticucho. The flavor was more subtle and the texture, while still with a substantial bite to it, more tender than I would have expected, given that it’s an organ that does a lot of non-stop hard work. It wasn’t my favorite, not because it wasn’t well made, but because like anything I try that is further outside the box, I have found that I begin to really appreciate the dish after my third try. I have two more times to go.
Entrees of the evening included Aji de Gallina ($7.75), Lomo Saltado ($9.25), Parihuela ($13.50), and Arroz con Mariscos ($10.25). Each and every one of these dishes was stellar in a very unique way.
Aji de Gallina is influenced by the Spanish and is categorized as “Creole,” when the Incan culture fused with the Spanish over several centuries. Shredded chicken is blanketed with a thick, spicy, creamy yellow sauce and served with white rice. The yellow color comes from aji amarillo (yellow chili pepper) paste, the thickening agent from white bread, and the creaminess from milk and cheese. Simply delectable.
Lomo Saltado is shaped by the Chinese. After all, it’s stir-fry! Steak strips, aji chili peppers, onions, tomatoes…and French fries. Yes, that’s right. French fries. Now, I’m a big fan of the crispy-on-the-outside-soft-on-the-inside French fries, and because these are stir-fried, they aren’t of the crispy variety. But no one cared, it was still such a great twist on a typical stir-fry.
Parihuela reminded me of the Italian Cioppino. It’s a seafood stew. A huge bowl came to the table that was large enough to hold half of a 1-2 lb. lobster, chopped lengthwise (I’m talking head, tail, all of it). It also had a clam so big, it must have been 4 inches wide. It was chock full of all types of seafood with a savory and slightly spicy broth that was simmered with a laundry list of herbs and spices. The result was a rich and complex broth.
Lastly, the Arroz con Mariscos – a dead ringer for the Spanish Paella. It wasn’t spicy like the other dishes we had, but the same plethora of seafood was folded into seasoned rice that was utterly gratifying.
Turns out that on a chilly Saturday evening, we went to one restaurant for one cuisine that covered four different continents. Makes you want to cheer.