sunday, may 23, 2010

El Califa

There is a Platonic ideal for the local lunch joint. It's a place you'll find anywhere in the world, jam packed every day of the week by folks who know what the regional cuisine should taste like because they grew up with their grandmother cooking it.

If you ever happen to wind up in Puerto Maldonado, Peru that restaurant is El Califa. For almost three decades the Portocarrero family has cranked out the best lunch in town featuring the jungle cuisine done in the best blue collar tradition. This place is so working class they also sell tractors on the side, just ask 'em.

At first glance, it ain't much; just a plain wooden structure at the end of one of the town's many dirt streets that only stands out because the paintjob is relatively fresh. The decor inside is similar ; a wide open room with about two dozen tables, each with a glass top and the menu underneath. But the clues are there. Among the usual tourism promo posters that adorn the walls is an aging portrait of the restaurant's founders - the hallmark of the great lunch joint.

If you get there before noon you'll have your pick of where to sit but by 1 p.m. it'll be a different story. Every table will be taken and the kitchen will have transformed into a hive of frantic activity. Walking in for the first time the smells of the food being prepared and the sight of the different dishes being shuttled out to the tables can almost overwhelm the hungry traveler. But being patient brings a fantastic reward.

Puerto Maldonado is situated on the banks of the Madre de Dios River in the heart of Peru's southern Amazonian basin. Born of the rubber boom a century ago it's survived to become the main metropolis of the vast jungle region. From a culinary standpoint, that gives it one of the best advantages possible.

The tropical climate of the Madre de Dios region produces an agricultural largesse unlike anywhere else in the country. A host of exotic fruits and other foods are complimented by the unrivaled freshness proximity to source provides.

El Califa capitalizes on this access to unsurpassed fresh ingredients but the standards of it's kitchen is what sets the place apart. Local restaurants across Peru serve up some great offerings but the corners cut out of necessity often means the dishes fall short of their true potential. El Califa avoids that trap with an emphasis on style.

A good example is Yucca, a staple of the Peruvian table. It's often overlooked as a bland side dish; virtually interchangeable with rice or potatoes. Yet fresh yucca just days out of the ground is a revelation, a tender and flavorful treat that more than holds its own against other foods. And fried with a light touch it becomes a revelation to the tongue.

The best place to start the El Califa culinary odyssey is on the drink portion of the menu. Skip the soft drinks and leave the beer for the evening and check out the juices. There are the usual staples such as pineapple and coconut but there's also a number of local jungle fruits well worth sampling.

For straight up refreshment, it's tough to top camu camu (pictured). Derived from a berry-like fruit, the reddish juice has a slight pineapple flavor and a raspberryish zing. In terms of flat out deliciousness I'm a fan of copoasu, a whitish colored juice that has a rich flavor kind of hard to describe - it's almost like the cream soda of fruit juices.

Both of these are touted in the US as "miracle fruits" with an abundance of medicinal qualities, which may or may not be true but what's important is they taste great.

The next stop on the menu is the soups and appetizers, all of which are worth making a meal of themselves. My epiphany about the restaurant occurred with the first bite of the ensalado de palmito that simply shocked me because it was so amazingly good.

The shaved slices of fresh palm heart are fantastic for a diner used to the tough blandness of the exported product. The vinegar taste of the dressing is a nice counter-punch to the palette but can overwhelm if they add too much.

It's also worthwhile to try juanes, a local delicacy consisting of cooked fish and rice that is spiced, wrapped in banana leaf and steamed, as well as chilcano, a flavored fish broth that is surprisingly light on the stomach.

The specialty of the house is lechon de horno or oven baked suckling pig and it's as astonishingly decadent and delicious as it sounds. The oven cooking allows the meat of the pig to retain as much of it's abundant flavor as possible and not sacrifice a whit of juiciness.

The best way to try this is to order tacacho con lechon with a side of platanos frito. Plantains are a banana-like fruit which has a similar texture as yucca when harvested early. Tacacho consists of green plantains cooked down then mixed with onion and other herbs and pan-fried in the grease from the suckling pig.

Platanos frito is cooked ripe plantains. Eaten with the pork it serves almost like a sweet-tasting sauce that complements the richness of the meat.

If I were able to cut a deal where I could eat this once a month at the cost of never touching bacon again, I wouldn't hesitate for a second.

While lechon is the star of the show, it's certainly worth trying out the rest of the menu if the opportunity presents itself. I particularly enjoyed the pan-fried beef heart as compared to the grilled style that is ubiquitous in Peru.

The fish dishes feature local freshwater varieties served into traditional ways such as ceviche and chicharron. These are certainly tasty and worth trying but nowhere near the class of seafood available on the coast. You'll be better off sticking to the meats which outstrip the quality available elsewhere in the country.

Like any true family run lunch joint, you need to expect scattershot wait service when you pop into El Califa. These folks are busy when the rush hits and sometimes it takes awhile to get caught up.

On the other hand, you can be assured your order is being taken care of. also love the fact you pay at counter, not at the table. It's the hallmark of this kind of restaurant which is almost extinct in the US.

The downside to the local flavor is the insistence on playing music more suited to a rural disco joint - recycled electronic dance crap. This isn't too much of a distraction and they turn it off when street musicians wander through to play more traditional Peruvian music on the guitar and cajon (a wooden box played like a drum).

Bottom line, a meal at El Califa is a priority for anyone making a stop in Puerto Maldonado and, in my estimation, enough to justify making the long trip itself.

Restaurant Cevicheria El Califa
Jiron Piura No. 266
Puerto Maldanado, Madre de Dios, Peru

Phone: 51 (082) 571-119, 51 (082) 571-348
Open: Monday - Sunday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

more:  Food | Peru 

posted by kleph @ 8:37 pm |

comment posted by: M Gravlee on may 24, 2010 @ 8:54 pm
Wow! You make El Califa sound like a 5 star restaurant. I want to try it but the location may prevent that ever occurring. Thanks for a great article.
comment posted by: Jacqueline on june 8, 2010 @ 5:14 am
great article c.j. - rather peckish now even though I just finished breakfast.
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