Cox: More delights from Peru at La Perla

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At this rate, Santa Rosa is going to be known for its great Peruvian restaurants.

We already have Sazon on Sebastopol Road, and now we have La Perla on Seventh Street. It’s every bit as good as, Sazon. Maybe it’s not to compare the two; each is first-rate. But what are the odds of having two great Peruvian restaurants in a city of this size?

Modern Peruvian cuisine is in vogue right now, not only in the U.S., but around the world, and will certainly only gain in popularity as the weather warms up as it’s perfect summertime fare. Fish and shellfish marinated in citrus juices. Luscious fruit sauces. Spicy peppers to make you sweat so the breezes can cool you down. And potatoes. — always potatoes. Peru is the home of the potato, where over 200 different kinds are enjoyed.

La Perla is located in the Brickyard Center, with its entrance on Seventh Street. It’s a high-ceilinged room with two flat-screen TVs (one of which shows hot salsa bands), woven wall hangings depicting llamas and Peruvian village scenes, and tables with white tablecloths covered with white butcher paper.

Beer offers welcome relief to spicy Peruvian food, although young Chef Edwin Martinez Jimenez keeps the heat tolerable on most dishes. The excellent Cusqueñ a lager is $5.

A small list of undistinguished wines is supplemented with what may be the better choice: a glass of sangria for $6.

Service is thoughtful and helpful.

Empanadas ($8 ★★★ ½) were nearly as good as the heavenly empanadas I ate in Argentina. The pastry crust was every bit as good — crispy, feather light, and flaky — and the filling of beef picadillo was tasty, but fell a bit short on flavor complexity and juiciness.

Still, I’m being picky here. These were the best empanadas I’ve found anywhere other than Argentina.

They’re served with a creamy drizzle made from aji amarillo, a hot, yellow-orange Peruvian chili pepper that tastes like sunshine, and with a very spicy, tangy salsa criolla.

Peruvian cuisine is known for its ceviches, raw seafood marinated in lime juice that “cooks” it. La Perla has four kinds on its menu, including Ceviche Mango Ginger ($13 ★★★ ½). Seven big, meaty Gulf shrimp swim in a wildly delicious mango-ginger-lime sauce, accompanied by julienned red onion and fiery hot rocoto chilies, and a handful of big white corn kernels.

Causa is a Peruvian staple made by pureeing together yellow potato, lime and aji amarillo paste. The menu offers three kinds. Causa Lime ña ($12 ★★★★ ) consists of five causas placed in a ceramic boat. Each is a bite-sized ball of goodness topped first with shredded, seasoned chicken, which in turn is topped with a tile of avocado, topped again with a pinch of finely frizzled butter-lettuce leaves.

The flavor is mild, but not to worry, the causas sit in a pool of rocoto aioli, which throws enough heat to bring each bite to life.

Nothing is more authentically Peruvian than Papa a la Huancayna ($8 ★★★ ), a cold appetizer folks there eat as both holiday and everyday food, especially picnic food.

A potato is boiled, then cut into rounds about half an inch thick set on butter-lettuce leaves. These are covered with huancayna sauce made of queso fresco, vegetable oil, aji amarillo paste, evaporated milk, and salt, pureed in a blender.

Black olives are set on top, along with quarters of hardboiled egg.

But the best was saved for last. Choros a la Chalaca ($10 ★★★★ ) means mussels in the style of Callao, Peru’s main seaport.

Eight ceramic spoons of the kind Chinese restaurants use for soup are arrayed on a tray. Mussels that have been cooked and chilled are set in the spoons and topped with cilantro leaf, onions, chopped tomato, rocoto chilies, lime juice, salt, and pepper.

The appetizer is served cold. You pick up each spoon and tilt it into your mouth. Then the fun begins.

To sum up: A great new Peruvian restaurant opens in Santa Rosa.

Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review for the Sonoma Living section. He can be reached at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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