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The Lomo Saltado or “Jumping Steak.”
The Lomo Saltado or “Jumping Steak.”

Azucar Picante

13062 50 St.

780-479-7400

www.azucar-picante.ca

Tues-Thurs: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Friday-Sat: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m.

Sun: 1:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Closed Mondays

Food: 4 of 5 Suns

Ambience: 3 of 5 Suns

Service: 3.5 of 5 Suns

Dinner for two excluding drinks and tip: Basic, $30; loaded, $60

It’s a tad bizarre.

Not a tad: Very bizarre!

The best Latin food in Edmonton, the best Peruvian food to be had in all Alberta, is in a little dance club way up in the city’s northeast, with a quanset hut entrance, in a dining room with no windows, Latino national flags adorning the ceiling, sombreros on the balcony posts, and a DJ crooning Spanish ballads from 7 p.m. until the dance floor fills up and the tempo picks up, well after our 8:30 p.m. departure.

On the one hand, Azucar Picante (translated from the Spanish as Spicy Sugar) is a family-run ristorante and cantina, the go-to restaurant for the city’s Latino/Peruvian community. On the other, it’s the Azucar Latin Nite Club, open until 2:30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.

What most of us don’t know — yet — is just how good Peruvian food is, how compatible it is with North American tastes.

This secret is being outed. The international culinary world was abuzz when, out of the Diners’ Club “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” for 2015, two Peruvian restaurants clocked in at #4 and #14.

The cuisine, captured in the home-cookin’ style of Azucar Picante, is unique. On the northwest coast of South America, blessed with mountains, seaports and arable land, Peru’s food culture is a blend of the original Incas plus successive waves of immigrants and colonizers, from Spain, Africa, China, Japan, Italy, France and Britain.

Azucar offers both Peruvian and Mexican menus. Skip the Mexican. Enchiladas, burritos and re-fried beans are on every street corner these days.

Peruvian food … think Spanish, with plenty of potatoes, other starches like corn, squash, plantain, much meat and an abundance of fish. Then add in a beautiful, fragrant, mildly spicy chili pepper known as aji amarillo.

Aji flavours most Peruvian dishes — Azucar Picante owners Manuel and Maria Echevarria travel to Peru twice a year and bring back 50 kilograms of aji with each trip. (Fortunately, aji freezes well.)

Azucar’s Peruvian menu is small but intriguing — seven appetizers, 10 main courses and three seafood-based soups that must be tried when the temperature drops. (The Peruvian bouillabaisse is described as a “thick fish broth with fresh tomatoes and a rich mix of seafood in an aji sauce. “)

The ceviche — chopped raw fish, cured in lime juice — is delicious, the Peruvian twist being a gentle dab of aji heat, and a small yam salad on the side.

A beef heart appetizer doesn’t sound appealing. But our Peruvian culinary guide urged us to give it a go. She was right. The anticuchos (skewered beef heart chunks seasoned in vinegar and spices, basted with an aji house sauce and hot off the grill) were a mouth-watering combination of soft meaty texture, the tart of the vinegar and the sweet spiciness of the sauce.

Lomo saltado — literally translated as “jumping steak” — is as multi-cultural as cooking can be. Strips of marinated steak were stir-fried over high heat with onions, tomatoes and garlic, served on a bed of French fries, garnished with cilantro, a side of rice and aji dipping sauce. It was Peruvian home-style cooking at its finest.

Likewise, bistec a lo pobre — “Poor man’s steak” — is a fast-grilled marinated thin steak topped with a fried egg sunny-side up and served with French fries. It was made Peruvian by the addition of fried plantain. Why fried plaintain, perfect for Canadian tastes, is not as popular as sweet potato fries in this country is a mystery.

Why am I talking about meat, when Azucar’s fish and shellfish is deliciously different, tastes fresh and is half the price of fish dishes elsewhere?

The arrozo con mariscos — seafood with rice — came topped with an enormous tender prawn. Under the shrimp, clams, mussels and squid, there was rice somewhere. All this, cooked as seafood should be cooked, for $20!

Azucar Picante is the opposite of sleek, big-box dining. It’s village Latino, as if you had wandered deep into a Peruvian barrio (neighbourhood) where the locals go to eat and dance. But it has such character and good food that I can’t wait to return to try more Peruvian dishes.

Graham Hicks

780 707 6379

graham.hicks@hicksbiz.com

www.hicksbiz.com

@hicksonsix