Sabores del Peru had already earned a following before it moved from 30th Street on the west side to the corner of Academy and Astrozon boulevards two years ago. But Juan and Ana Ramos, after working for Sabores' prior owners for several months, saw where improvements could be made, and on July 4th last year, they forged their independence.
The Ramoses first created a lower-cost menu that offered traditional dishes from their Peruvian childhood and from that of their Puerto Rican chef, affectionately called Santos. They also aimed to eliminate excessive waits while keeping the restaurant made-to-order, and added little clock logos next to select menu items indicating items with longer cook times.
Sabores then added a wait-even-less, but-eat-all-you-can lunch buffet for $11.30. On one visit, the express meal offered a simple but satisfying mix of pork chops, thin beef cuts and stewed chicken in oily, flavorful red sauces over satisfying rice and peas.
That said, I'd make time for the rest of the menu.
You may not be able to pronounce some of the dishes, but taste them and you'll be reminded of what a small world we have. Consider the papa rellena, or stuffed potato ($4.95): It's a must-try with ground beef, raisins, chunks of hard-boiled eggs and spices wrapped with fluffy mashed potatoes, dusted with flour and fried. As with many Sabores offerings, marinated red onion slivers accompany this one, which comes out like a shepherd's pie-like ball — familiar, yet uniquely Peruvian.
As is the arroz chaufa de pollo ($8.95) or chicken fried rice. Though it shows off the Asian influences in Peru, it's made unique with the flavors and fragrances of cinnamon and cumin. Even the delightful chicha morada ($2) provides a delightful twist on iced tea; fruity and floral, the ruby-colored drink made from Peruvian corn comes bearing tastes of sugar and cloves.
Pride is visible in the outfit's service; running the tapestry-adorned dining area, Ana took time to talk with me about how seafood and fish are vital in Peruvian cuisine. And while many of the menu items use tilapia, an inexpensive fish, the preparations range widely. Among them: the jalea de pescado ($12.50), a simple fish-and-chip meal with thick-wedge yucca fries, and the pescado a lo macho ($13.50), tilapia smothered in a rich red sauce of mussels, shrimp, squid and peppers. Also from the sea is the made-to-order ceviche mixto ($13.95), a citrus-cured blend of tender white fish hunks, squid and baby shrimp garnished with thumbnail-sized kernels of Peruvian corn and crunchy dried corn.
The distinctive garnishes heighten the dishes, as do potent sides and sauces. My carne frita con mofongo ($8.95) of flash-fried pork chunks and a dense mound of fried, mashed plantains (think mashed potatoes with muscle) was kicked-up by an intense, oily, garlic sauce. A plastic side ramekin of house hot sauce lulled me with a vinegary sweetness before punching me in the mouth.
Though the Ramoses have brought a welcome attention to detail in some respects, there are a few kinks that need to be smoothed out. For one thing, beef hearts aren't available Tuesdays, but the menu doesn't say so. And flan ($3) was the only dessert available on one visit.
Of course, that worked out OK: That wedge of eggy, caramel goodness was outstanding. Like many sabores at Sabores.