Peruvian Cuisine is Having a Moment in Sonoma County
If you’ve been paying attention to restaurant openings in Sonoma County, there’s an unusual trend — Peruvian restaurants popping up everywhere. So what’s behind that?
If you ask Oscar Canul, owner of the just-opened Inca’s Peruvian Cuisine in Sebastopol, there is a high demand for the unique fusion of Indigenous Incan ingredients and cooking styles with immigrant influences from Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Italian and African cultures.
“It’s the tastes, the sauces, the culture,” said Canul over plates of ceviche, empanadas and steaming seafood stew made by his cousin, Magaly Salub, in the small kitchen. Both have former ties to Sazon in Santa Rosa and Fresca in San Francisco and bring that experience to the flavorful plates that make this my top pick for Peruvian cuisine in Sonoma County.
It takes a bit of searching to find the quiet strip mall spot just west of downtown Sebastopol on Gravenstein Highway South. Tucked behind a Starbucks, it doesn’t look like much from the outside. It’s also still pretty sparse inside, but don’t let that steer you away.
Canul, who isn’t Peruvian but instead identifies as Mayan, said he chose the Sebastopol location because there wasn’t anything else like it nearby.
Peruvian Food Primer
Corn, potatoes, quinoa and beans are the foundation of Peruvian cooking, accented by flavorful peppers and seafood and often studded with meats like beef, chicken and pork introduced by the Spanish.
Beef and pork are often value cuts, slow-braised for flavor. Chicken is ubiquitous, though often poached and shredded, carrying the sauce’s flavor rather than having much flavor itself. Seafood is a must at Inca, especially the raw ceviches that require a super-fresh catch.
Huacatay: It’s called mint sauce, but don’t expect it to taste like toothpaste. This ancient herb used by the Incans is made into a sauce with a grassy, peppery, citrus and basil flavor with just a hint of mint.
Aji amarillo: a yellow or orange chile pepper used in many Peruvian dishes. Compare it to a jalapeño, though most dishes offset the heat with creamy ingredients like cream.
Aji rocoto: a spicier red pepper used sauces
Aji panca: the least spicy pepper in Peruvian cooking
Huancaina: a creamy cheese sauce made with aji amarillo and queso fresca (or feta). Papa a la Huancaina is a popular dish made with potatoes covered in cheese sauce.
Cancha: toasted corn. Think giant Corn Nuts.
Salsa criolla: red onion marinated with lime, aji amarillo and fresh cilantro
Ceviche: seafood or fish cooked by placing it in fresh lime juice. Leche de Tigre is the spicy, citrusy marinade that results from the cooking process.
“We may not be Peruvian, but we have Peruvian passion and we have adopted the food as our own,” said Canul of his family.
You’ll notice some similarities to the Sazon menu for sure, but what makes Inca stand out from the crowd is the passionate family vibe; the use of fresh, local ingredients; and the thoughtful plating.
Overall: Inspired versions of the fine cuisine of Peru. The kitchen goes out of its way to use authentic ingredients and techniques but isn’t bound by tradition.
Mango Habanero Ceviche, $17: Prawns swim in a sunset-orange mango puree. A hint of lime makes this a bit more approachable than the more tart, classic ceviches. Ceviche Mixto ($17) with spicy peppers, mussels, scallops, shrimp, calamari, clams and octopus is a must-try.
Papa Rellana, $10: This deep-fried potato croquette is filled with a mix of ground beef, raisins, onions, hard-boiled egg and olives. We love the savory-sweet, crunchy appetizer. Empanadas with chicken pork or beef ($14) are also excellent.
Causa Santa Rosa, $10: This take on the classic Causa de Pollo has tart pickled beets in ginger, with lime and cilantro sauce atop a cake of aji amarillo-spiked mashed potatoes. Beautiful and addictive.
Parihuela, $26: If you’re a fan of steamy soup facials a la steamed mussels, you’ll love this piping-hot bouillabaisse broth loaded with seafood and potatoes. Garlic bread lets you sop up every last drop.
Arroz Con Marisco, $25: A heaping plate of creamy Peruvian-style paella loaded with seafood in a savory aji panca pepper sauce. There’s almost too much seafood stuffed into this crowd-feeding dish. We’d leave out the crab claw that tastes frozen.
Seco De Carne, $28: Anywhere else, this dish would command a higher price. Perfectly braised short ribs in a cilantro beer broth that’s sour, grassy and meaty in a good way. Sides of yucca, sweet potatoes and beans round out this dish. Lamb will soon replace the beef.
Flan, $8: Baked into a dense slice, this version of flan is flavor-boosted into a creamy, caramelized dessert you won’t soon forget. Leave room.
Needs improvement: Dishes are mildly spiced, almost to the extreme. We’d love to see a slight bump in heat levels.
The menu clearly labels dishes that are gluten-free, dairy-free and shellfish-free. Quinoa can be substituted for rice, and the menu includes Salteado de Verduras, a vegan dish with gluten-free soy sauce. Several dishes can be altered for specific dietary needs.
799 Gravenstein Highway S., Sebastopol, 707-861-9057, Instagram: @incas_peruviancuisine
Other local Peruvian restaurants
Sazon, Santa Rosa: The original Sonoma County Peruvian restaurant is still a thrill, with excellent ceviche and lomo saltado. The menu hits all the highlights of a typical Peruvian menu and has always been a favorite. However, on recent visits, dishes felt little phoned-in, making us miss the ecstatic days when it was a little-known hole-in-the-wall. 1129 Sebastopol Road, Santa Rosa, 707-523-4346
Quinua Cocina Peruana, Petaluma: A popular neighborhood Peruvian kitchen with Peruvian staples. 500 Petaluma Blvd. S., Petaluma, 707-981-7359
Ayawaska, Petaluma: A full bar elevates this riverfront restaurant significantly, and five different Pisco-infused cocktails will keep you busy. A vibrant interior and a lengthy menu hit all the right notes, though there are few truly standout dishes. 101 Second St., No. 190, Petaluma, 707-559-3519
Bistro 201, Petaluma (new): The family-run restaurant is still getting its footing, with service seeming harried and a bit unsure. Some dishes are frequently “out of stock,” including the chicken and tuna causa we could never order. The Cau Cau de Mondongo, a comfort dish made with potatoes and tripe, has been a huge favorite, but again, infrequently available. We do like the heat of their sauces, however, with a nice bite from the peppers. 613 E. Washington St., Petaluma, 707-559-5130
Warike, Santa Rosa (coming): The owners of Ayawaska are planning a new downtown Peruvian restaurant. Opening soon. 527 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 707-536-9201
By: Sonoma Magazine Staff
Heather Irwin contributed to this article.