So, what does the average Oklahoman really know about the Incas? Far too little, thanks to their civilization being all but obliterated by the Spanish Conquistadors. To give them some credit, the Spanish didn’t just bring diphtheria, smallpox, forced labor and unparalleled cruelty to the Americas; They also brought some of their more. . . delicate recreational activities which, coalescing with the rugged new terrain and traditions of the native peoples, formed the unique culture of Latin America we know today. The most obvious result of this (and my personal favorite, of course) is the food. Yes, the Spanish had the foresight not only to preserve some Inca recipes, but also to use the indigenous ingredients to create a whole new cuisine.
For some perspective, Europeans did not eat corn or potatoes until they discovered South America. Yes, before the fifteenth century, most of the world had no corn and no potatoes. Corn and its derived products are everywhere now. It’s a part of the food you eat every day in many ways you’re probably not aware of. But it isn’t just the plant that’s pervaded every continent. The ways in which it was used by indigenous peoples (the tortilla, anyone?) have been immortalized in the familiar staples of the Mexican food we all know and love. Latin America may have been conquered by Europe, but its food, in turn, has conquered the world.
So we arrive at Inca Trail, the restaurant in Oklahoma city (and the only one I know of) which specializes in Peruvian cuisine. The first thing I want to get across about this place is that it isn’t Mexican food. Sure there are similarities, heavy use of beans, rice and corn being among them, but the flavors and preparation are something completely unique. And perhaps the best example of Peru’s contribution to food is ceviche.
Ceviche is a blend of chopped seafood (fish, scallops, shrimp, etc.) marinated in lime. There are many different styles, but the dish and most of its variations originated in Peru. Being such a point of national pride, my parents and I decided it would be the best way to start a Peruvian meal (after a complimentary cup of warm soup.) Inca Trail offers four different preparations, but how could we not go for the one called “Leche de Tigre?” ($7.99) That’s “Milk of the Tiger,” which turns out to be an appropriate name in more ways than one. The base of this particular ceviche is the highly acidic liquid runoff used to cure the fish, made up of lime juice and other seasonings. The glass is filled to the brim with the opaque (yes, it looks a little milky), pink liquid, and densely packed with bits of fishy goodness. According to the menu, the dish is both an aphrodisiac and hangover cure. That’s right Kids! Leche de Tigre can be your drink of choice for prom night and the morning after!
Take your first bite and you’ll see what they’re talking about. A spoonful of the fish cocktail is mouth-puckering tart. Served chilled, it manages to have explosive flavor while still being cool and refreshing. The kernels of corn on top, something I’d never seen used in ceviche before, are actually a great idea, providing a nice crunch for contrast. But even after a couple bites it still has time to surprise you. Yes, it’ll be faint at first, but lurking within the glass is the kind of spiciness that sneaks up on you. When your face starts to flush, you’ll realize the dish’s pink tint comes from a healthy dose of chili pepper. But don’t let me dissuade the faint of heart. I’m a wimp when it comes to spicy food and this is just the right amount; Perfect for getting the blood flowing (hey, it is almost valentines day, isn’t it?)
The ceviche is a hard act to follow, but the rest of the meal turned out to be diverse and just as interesting. My meal was the Parrillada Inca ($17.99), a platter of assorted meats (does this come as any surprise?) so big that the sides come on a separate plate. It covers all of the important bases: steak, pork, chicken and sausages, all with a side of rice, beans and Inca salad. The meats are all tender and juicy, grilled and marinated in what the menu calls “traditional Peruvian spices.” The chicken in particular is cooked in a charcoal oven and has great flavor and dark, crispy skin (just the way I like it).
Dad ordered the half chicken as its own dish ($9.99), while Mom had the Tacu Tacu ($10.99), a stir fry of rice and beans topped with sirloin steak and salsa criolla. But the best part of this dish, by far, is the fried plantains. This is the one thing I require you to try if you come here. The firmer, less-sweet cousin of the banana, plantains are a revelation when fried. Crisp on the outside, tender and warm in the center, they’re the best natural candy you’ll ever have.
The menu is too big and diverse to be summed up with just these three dishes, but everything Inca Trail does, it does very well. The meats are all well-seasoned and fresh, with a wide variety of veggies and starches (Peru has over 2800 native varieties of potato, after all). If the plantains don’t satisfy your sweet tooth, they offer some fabulous desserts such as a traditional Flan custard, or ice creams made from fruits native to Peru (both $3.95). Another distinctly Peruvian treat is Chicha Morada ($2.50), a drink that dates back to Inca times made from sweet, purple corn and a hint of fruit juice. In my humble opinion, this was one of the best meals I’ve had in recent memory.
When I think on my meal there, all I can say is: they’ve done it again. This is city has managed to provide a home for yet another restaurant so interesting and well-executed, so far removed from our own culture, it seems to have dropped out of the sky. Like the fabled vehicle that came from somewhere out there just to land in the Andes? Nah, if the Incas really had aliens on their side, Pizarro wouldn’t have stood a chance. The credit for this wonderful food goes to the hard-working people in every culture who, through pure trial and error, tirelessly worked to discover the different combinations of spices and methods of cooking that work so well, and that we now take for granted; And especially to the people who keep those recipes alive so they can be shared in a city like this one. We’re lucky to have them.
*Inca trail is open daily for lunch and dinner. You can peruse their menu here: http://incatrailokc.com/