We discovered DX Peruvian Restaurant in a little collection of small ethnic eateries across the street from South Coast Plaza.
Early influences from Spain and later China, Africa and Europe have all played their part in Peru's culinary evolution but, with 3,800 varieties of potato and 55 varieties of corn, it is not surprising to find these ingredients dominating the cuisine.
The ubiquitous "saltado" is a prime example of the marriage between an indigenous notion of a meal, namely potatoes, with a Chinese cooking technique, namely stir-fry. It consists of beef, chicken or seafood wokked with French fries, vegetables, soy sauce and a bit of vinegar.
Lomo saltado is the most popular version. The beef they use at DX is filet so it is very tender. The French fries are cooked separately. Then, the meat is sliced and cooked in a little oil. Next, onions and tomatoes are added along with a soy and vinegar sauce. Finally, the fries are tossed back into the pan.
This may sound strange because the fries get soggy, but if you forget the fact that they are French fries and just think of them as potatoes, they begin to grow on you because they soak up all the yummy juices of the jumble.
A classic house-made spicy, chili pepper, garlic, cilantro sauce is placed on the table at the beginning of your meal, along with French bread. The sauce is good on the bread and just about everything else as well.
We used it on our chicken empanadas rather than the light vinegar sauce that accompanied them. The homemade dough was softer than the Argentinean variety but quite flavorful and the edges were crisp. The filling was a pleasant, subtly spicy mixture of chicken and pimentos.
Ceviche is another typical Peruvian dish, and at DX there is an entire ceviche menu. There are two classic preparations — one with fish and one featuring fish and seafood. They are both garnished with a hunk of sweet potato and a sprinkle of Peruvian corn kernels, which are very large, very white and not at all sweet.
Of the five house special ceviches, we chose ceviche verde, which is white fish marinated in lime juice and served with a green chili-cilantro sauce. The fish was tossed with avocado, onions, Peruvian corn and cancha (crunchy dried corn kernels), all on a bed of sliced cucumbers. It was a delicious variation with just the right amount of heat, a nice variety of textures and a wonderful flavor.
Every coastal country has its seafood stew, and Peru is no exception. Parihuela has a rich and complex spicy tomato broth enlivened with the juices of the mussels, shrimp, calamari, bay scallops and white fish. The large bowl makes for a hearty entrée.
Our only disappointment was the baked chicken. Originally, their chicken was spit-roasted, but the rotisserie has broken down and now it's baked. Our chicken had been reheated and was dry.
However, it came with some perfect white rice that we puzzled over for much of the meal, trying to figure out what made it so good. The kitchen said "only oil and salt," which clearly did not leave us any the wiser.
We finished our meal with alfajores and flan. We were sorry to have missed out on the lucuma (a tropical fruit) ice cream that is housemade but was still too soft to serve.
Alfajores are a kicked up cookie sandwich filled with dulce de leche. The cookie is dry, flaky and sweet and the dulce de leche has a deep caramel flavor. We thoroughly enjoyed it. The flan was light in both texture and flavor with a thin caramelized skin on the bottom.
For a beverage, we tried chicha morada, a sweet, fruity tasting non-alcoholic drink made from purple corn. Interestingly, it has four times the resveratrol as a glass of red wine.
DX is a great introduction to the pleasures of Peruvian food.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at email@example.com.
DX Peruvian Restaurant
Where: 3930 S. Bristol St., Suite 108, Santa Ana