Peruvian food, a culinary mash-up of that country’s Spanish, African, Chinese, Japanese, French, and Italian influences, could not have more exotic roots. But dishes like aji de gallina, shredded chicken in a creamy, nutty white sauce over a single lengthwise slice of potato, and seco de res, a deconstructed beef stew plated with rice and beans, feel almost homespun at Fountain Square’s tiny Mama Irma Restaurant. That has a lot to do with owner Hilda Cano, who moved from Lima to the United States at age 10 and acts as if her 10-table dining room is her own home. Petite and perky, with short-cropped hair and an endearing smile, Cano shouts a warm welcome from the back of the room when new customers walk in the door: “Hi guys!” And she wants to make them happy. “Guys, if you don’t like what you ordered, just let me know and I will make you something else.” We have never taken her up on that offer.
To the unacquainted, the menu is deep and mysterious, with descriptions that don’t even begin to give these complex dishes full justice. Fortunately, servers are patient, wise, and always ready with spot-on recommendations. We owe a debt of gratitude to the one who first pointed us in the direction of the tacu tacu, a plate-spanning rice-and-bean cake that has a core of sliced steak and peppers. Having tasted that, we never wanted to order anything else, though fortunately we did. Seafood, a coastal Peruvian staple, gets a lot of love here, most spectacularly in the form of a light seafood bisque, in which bits of potato, boiled egg, and cobs of starchy Peruvian corn bob around the hunks of fish and shrimp. Every slurp holds a hint of exotica. Simpler seafood presentations include an elegant hunk of poached tilapia in a deep-red sauce of blended tomatoes, onions, and wine.
The spicing is subtle in some dishes, striking in others, but always precise. Sometimes the combination of ingredients challenges our middle-American notions. When was the last time you had chilled, spiced mashed potatoes molded around chicken salad? But dishes assembled with such care and presented so lovingly can grow on you and become familiar. As Indy’s ethnic food scene expands and (hopefully) fills in all of our international cracks, Mama Irma gives us a place to call home.
>> SIMILAR TASTES
Peruvian restaurant Machu Picchu (5236 W. 38th St., 388-8696) keeps lunchtime regulars hooked on spicy aji dipping sauce and a perpetually fresh rotation of ceviches > World diners have options along the 38th Street corridor, from the injeras of Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant (5352 W. 38th St., 299-0608, abyssiniarestaurant.com) to the soothing phos of Saigon Restaurant (4760 W. 38th St., 927-7270, saigonrestaurant-indy.com) > Recently, Virginia Avenue has emerged as a world-cuisine borough as well. Tortas Guicho Dominguez y el Cubanito (641 Virginia Ave., 658-0735, tortasguicho.com) specializes in oversized Mexican sandwiches named after Latin American celebrities, and empanada fans get their fix at Esperanza’s Kitchen (1026 Virginia Ave., 644-0509).
>> SIDE STORY: The Pescado a lo Macho at Mama Irma Restaurant
Owner Hilda Cano’s recipe for this rich seafood soup was adapted from the version her mother (the Mama Irma) used to cook for the family in Peru. Cano has had to make some adjustments due to the local scarcity of some Peruvian chile peppers. “In order for me to get all of the spices together for the base of it, I prepare it with dehydrated red peppers,” Cano says. “It still has a kick to it.”
Photo by Tony Valainis.
This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue.