Food cart transforms into Madison restaurant

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By Bill Livick, Special to The Gazette
Wednesday, October 23, 2013

MADISON—If you've never tasted Peruvian food, a new restaurant on the city's east side is a fine place for an introduction. People in the culinary world are paying lots of attention to Peruvian cuisine these days.

Surco Peruvian Cuisine opened in July in what had been a nondescript space that used to house a Mexican restaurant. It's the same building but improved in significant ways. Colorful Peruvian art now adorns dining room walls, and wonderful cooking is taking place in the kitchen, transforming what could be ordinary rotisserie chicken, for example, into a tender and mildly spicy work of art.

That was our party of four's assessment during a visit last weekend. We were impressed with the well balanced, delectable flavors in dishes built around classic ingredients of Peru: chili peppers, corn, potatoes, seafood, beef and chicken, along with distinctive herbs and spices such as coriander, cilantro, basil and mint.

The dining room is comfortable and a tad formal, with linen napkins, pretty table settings and soft South American music.

Our young server first offered a choice of bread or soup on the house. The excellent carrot soup was spicy and sweet but flavored differently from the more common ginger-carrot soup.

We sampled two appetizers from a list of five. The empanadas (two for $9) are baked pastries stuffed with tasty beef tenderloin and come with two sauces: rocoto (a hot chili pepper native to Peru) or a cilantro cheese sauce. Everyone at our table loved them.

We also enjoyed a plate of jalea ($13)—a mix of battered and deep-fried seafood (fish, shrimp, squid and octopus). The assortment comes with a red onion salsa and yucca root sticks that resemble french fries but are thicker and denser.

Even the least of our main courses was very good—if a bit overpriced. The Pollo a la Parrilla ($16) was a small half chicken marinated with Peruvian chilies and served with the same cilantro huancaina (cheese) sauce and crispy sweet potato fries.

Better was an aromatic plate of lamb simmered in a cilantro stew and served with tacu tacu—a mixture of fried beans and rice blended together to make what looked like mashed potatoes ($22). A generous portion of the spicy, tender meat also came with yucca sticks and salsa criolla (red onion salsa).

An order of Pollo Saltado ($17) didn't disappoint with its succulent mix of sautéed and stir-fried chicken, onions, tomatoes, red bell peppers, carrots, mushrooms, garlic and ginger. The dish came in a large portion served over white rice, with french fries on the side. Our friend Julia easily had enough leftovers for a second meal the next day.

The Pollo Saltado was prepared in a similar fashion to its more famous cousin, Lomo Saltado ($20), in which sliced beef tenderloin is stir fried with onions, tomatoes, soy sauce, vinegar and chilies and served with rice. The ample chunks of meat were accented with aji Amarillo mayonnaise, avocado and a cheese sauce.

Many Madisonians will recognize those dishes from Surco's food cart, which once was located at the Library Mall on the UW-Madison campus. The food cart disappeared more than a year ago, amid rumors that owner Wilfredo Dextre planned to open a restaurant. Remodeling the building that once housed Antojitos el Toril took so long that many had written off or forgotten the new restaurant.

Since opening in July, Surco has received much local praise but also a little criticism for its prices.

Another problem is the place tends to run out of things listed on the menu. That was the case the night of our visit, when desserts were not available. Alcoholic beverages also are not an option, although our server said the owners expect to have an alcohol license by this time next month.

We settled for the classic Peruvian drink chicha morada ($3)—a delicious clove-flavored beverage prepared from a base of boiled purple maize (which acts as a coloring agent) and a generous amount of powdered cloves, with sugar, cinnamon and ice.

Service at Surco is very good—friendly and efficient—and the food is even better.

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