On a recent chilly night, a ruddy-cheeked mix of date-nighting hipsters, ethnic foodies, and Spanish-speaking expats filled the 10 tables inside Mama Irma Restaurant. Twinkle lights in the windows gave the storefront a Thomas Kinkade glow. And yet, even as the owner greeted diners with a motherly “Hi guys!” as if they had just come in from band practice, this snug Peruvian eatery in Fountain Square seemed blissfully unaware of its own preciousness.
That requires a special kind of focus these days, amid much buzz about Peruvian food’s glorious arrival on the culinary scene. The Food Channel included it in its Top 10 Food Trends for 2012. Frommer’s named Lima, Peru, this year’s Top Food & Drink Destination. And articles in Conde Nast Traveler and The New York Times have noted the ascent of this cross-pollinated South American cuisine, historically influenced by Spanish, African, Chinese, Japanese, French, and Italian cooking. What Mama Irma’s owner Hilda Cano (who moved from Lima to the United States at age 10 and most recently ran a Beech Grove cleaning company) serves is best described as exotic comfort food. And Cano knows her audience. Dishes include the traditional lomo saltado, soy-marinated sirloin tips cooked with onions, tomatoes, and french fries (yes, french fries), and the papa rellena, a potato-dough ball formed around a core of chopped meat, olives, and boiled eggs that is deep-fried and served with vinegary red-onion relish as a cooling agent.
Several visits in, I still wanted to play dumb every time a server asked if we needed help with the menu—partly because restaurant employees are rarely as informed and genuinely excited as these. And partly because a person really can get lost in the ramble of sopas (soups), arroces (rices), mariscos (seafood), tallarines (pastas), and especialidades that fill the tri-fold menu. Written descriptions don’t always give the full picture, either, which can make for some interesting moments when plates arrive at the table. We knew the seco de res would be a beef stew with rice and beans. We were caught off guard by its presentation as three individual mounds on the plate.
“Trust me, it tastes just like stew,” our server insisted. It did.
Many first-timers are directed toward the shredded-chicken dish aji de gallina, a solid gateway choice. A thick slice of potato serves as its base (a nod to Peru’s reverence of the spud), with a creamy sauce that begins as an Alfredo but has a spicy, nutty finish. Chupe de camarones, a light seafood bisque, offers meaty hunks of fish and shrimp. Deeper in the bowl, the spoon hits pockets of potato and boiled egg that have soaked up the broth, and cobs of oversized Peruvian corn—its kernels as big as corn nuts—that you pluck out and eat with your fingers. An odd little appetizer, the causa rellena arrived at our table in the form of a bright yellow dome of chilled mashed potatoes tightly molded around a core of chicken salad and topped with a squiggle of mayo and wedge of boiled egg, like something from Mars, or a 1970s cookbook. In reality, the recipe comes from the files of Cano’s mother, Mama Irma, whose framed portrait hangs sentinel on the back wall.
Service seemed off its mark on a lunch visit. An order of seafood fried rice got hopelessly lost, arriving warm, peppery, and impressively loaded with shrimp and squid—just as everybody else’s plates were being cleared. While misses like that will eventually filter out the finicky epicurious, diehards will have a hard time staying away from dishes like the tacu tacu relleno, a starchy fried bean-and-rice patty as big as the plate, stuffed with strips of steak. Or the Peruvian ceviches, with cubes of sweet potato tossed in with the seafood. Or any of the housemade desserts, especially the mazamorra morada, a warm purple corn pudding.
That Mama Irma sits along the main drag of Fountain Square no doubt has something to do with the restaurant’s strong start. For years, the blue-collar district plodded along with no food scene to speak of, let alone an ethnic one. Now it’s hustling like it needs to make up for lost time. Finally, we might be poised for something different. Even if it somehow tastes familiar.
Mama Irma Restaurant
1058 Virginia Ave., 423-2421
HOURS 9 a.m.–11 p.m. Mon.–Sat.
Photographs by Stacy Newgent and Tony Valainis.
This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue.