A visit to Sabor Peruano in Fairfield provides something that is becoming increasingly rare in Cincinnati: an authentic, no-frills ethnic menu offering strange and unfamiliar dishes unadulterated by their intercontinental journey to the United States.
This is hearty and satisfying Peruvian food. There are no embarrassing attempts to emulate the worst of American dining like those found at other ethnic restaurants. There is no El Hamburgo at Sabor Peruano and no Fries Americano.
Within its squat and rather modest exterior at its new location overlooking the nondescript and even more modest Dixie Highway, Hispanic families gather at long tables laughing, talking and eating together. Children play boisterously between the booths while waitresses unhurriedly bring plates heaped with food from the kitchen. My companion and I are seated at a booth, and after taking a quick look at the extensive menu, we order some appetizers: a Porcion de Anticuchos ($6) or grilled beef heart for me, and Choclo con Queso ($5) or Peruvian corn with white cheese for my companion.
A few minutes later, the anticuchos arrives. Beef heart. It is a generous helping of grilled meat sitting in flavorful juices and oil accompanied by a grilled potato. I eat the pieces of meat which look more like meat than heart, and I leave the pieces of heart that look more like heart than meat.
The pieces of meat left on the plate have smooth channels on their undersides. These are remnants of vessels, thick-walled arteries and valves.
This is adventure dining. The anticuchos is intensely flavored and slightly rubbery against the teeth, like liver.
The ear of Peruvian corn is as much a botanical marvel as a dining experience. It is pale yellow, and although it's roughly the same circumference as American corn, each individual kernel is the size of one's thumbnail or larger. It pops and snaps with a satisfying sound in the mouth, releasing a pleasant starchy taste. It looks like it was harvested in The Land That Time Forgot. Served with three or four rectangular slabs of soft creamy white cheese that resembles firm tofu, the nuttiness of the corn combines wonderfully with the bitterness and mouth-coating acidity of the cheese.
For entrées, we select Bisteck a la Pobre ($11.50) (steak with rice, fries, fried banana and egg), a serving of Chicharron de Mariscos ($11) (crunchy fried seafood) and a Chaufa Especial ($13) (special fried rice). While we're waiting, we order delicious Mexican sodas: Jarritos Crush ($1.50) in tamarind and lime flavors.
The menu is filled with wonderful-sounding choices: Green Stew Beef with cassava and rice ($8), Sliced Hen with yellow cream and rice ($8), Beef Tripe Italian style ($7) and numerous seafood choices, including Ceviche ($10), Shrimp in Garlic Sauce ($11) and Mussel Soup ($11).
Before the entrées arrive, I have time to inspect the décor. I can't decide if it's just bad or actually bad enough to be considered charming in a theatrical sort of way.
Carpets from the mid-1970s decorated in geometric patterns clash with beige and crimson leather booths, dark grey ceiling tiles, tan-colored wall tiles, orange brick and dark-brown inexpensive tables. Nothing matches anything. Walking from the foyer to the dining area through the cyclone of colors, designs and textures gives one the vertiginous feeling of running quickly up and down the aisles of a home improvement store.
This is a minor and petty complaint, and the quality of the food is sufficient to redirect the senses once it arrives. The Special Fried Rice is aromatic, loaded with chicken, shrimp and squid and flavored with fried egg, finely chopped red peppers and scallions. It almost resembles paella. It is delicious.
The steak arrives with a side of white rice and fries, with a fried egg unceremoniously sitting on the top. It is gleaming and oily unhealthy but intensely satisfying. The crunchy fried mixed seafood is comprised of battered pieces of squid and whole shrimp, served with a refreshing onion and tomato salad and accompanied with lime wedges to squeeze over the seafood. It is an affordable feast.
With little room left to spare, we still manage to order dessert, selecting a Creama Volteada-Flan ($2), which is a flan served in a caramel sauce, and an Alfajores ($1.50), a traditional South American cookie filled with condensed milk and dusted with sugar. We eat what we can, but Sabor Peruano has beaten us. There is too much food.
We humbly pack our leftovers into a precarious tower of Styrofoam boxes and, drawing stares from the regulars, make our way through the vortex of patterns and colors, our senses dulled by food, back to the Dixie Highway and to America. ©
Go: 7105 Dixie Hwy., Fairfield
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday to Friday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Plenty of salads and seafood dishes
Accessibility: Fully accessible