Peruvian riches

Some of the best-kept dining secrets are hidden in the crevices of huge, obnoxious shopping plazas. Pollo Rico is a delicious example. Sitting in a corner of the Lake Fredrica Shopping Plaza on State Road 436, the restaurant's tiny storefront gives no indication of the treasures within.

Inside, the humble eatery's off-white walls are adorned with colorful Peruvian tapestries, crafts and dolls. But the festive decorations barely hint at the feasts that await.

The bountiful cuisine of Peru -- a country with a high poverty rate but a wealth of good cooking -- is characterized by lots of hot peppers and root crops like yams, yuca and countless varieties of potatoes. It bears strong resemblance to Cuban food but has an unexpected Chinese influence. The flavors and textures are surprisingly comforting.

On this particularly cold and rainy night, the "caldo de pollo" ($4.50), Peruvian-style chicken soup, was the perfect remedy. Big enough to be a meal itself, it's loaded with noodles and large chunks of carrots and potatoes in a rich, deeply seasoned broth.

Next came the "yuca a la huancaina" ($5), which are thick, hearty slices of yuca (a root crop similar to a potato but denser, with more of a bite), deep fried and served on a plateful of spicy cheese sauce.

Meat-and-potato people -- which I am -- will enjoy the "lomo saltado" ($9), tender strips of beef stir-fried with tomatoes, onions and french fries in a savory brown sauce with a Chinese flair.

Hot peppers, or aji, are a Peruvian staple. The "aji de gallina" ($7) is a delectable blend of shredded chicken and thick potato slices in a creamy sauce with tantalizing specks of red aji. The texture is like a very thick chicken and dumplings -- perfect on a cold night.

The high point of the meal was the "papa rellena" ($3), so amazing, I'd throw down a sumo wrestler for one. This is without a doubt the best rellena I've ever had: a huge mashed-potato ball stuffed with ground beef, sliced egg, olives and raisins, and then quickly fried until the outside is crispy. The potato pocket is served with thinly sliced lime-marinated onions and a very hot sauce made from green aji.

I don't believe any meal is complete without dessert. My server, who was friendly and eager to help, suggested "alfajor" ($1.20), a "sandie" cookie with a dulce de leche filling -- totally to-die-for. An Inca Kola (which tastes a bit like red cream soda) made the perfect chaser.

Peruvian fare is famous in South America, but I predict its popularity will steadily grow on this one. It's the new "Southern comfort" food. And with Pollo Rico on the map, the South will rise again.

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