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West Valley City • Most eaters might guess Peruvian cuisine is most similar to Mexican, but they'd be wrong. Sure, there are obvious Spanish influences, but from years of varied immigration, the nation's cuisine is also shaped by China, Italy, Africa and Japan.
Over my visits to El Rocoto, I was surprised and excited to learn just how varied Peruvian food can be. That's thanks to owner and chef Macario Diaz, who has brought the staples and flavors of his homeland to West Valley City.
The restaurant sits in the middle of a modest strip mall, while the décor inside has a simple diner feel, with colorful wall decorations from Peru. TVs hang on the walls, and on any given evening they're likely to be tuned to a soccer game. On weekends, the restaurant hosts live music and karaoke.
For imbibers, there's a small selection of beers (Dos Equis, Modelo, Corona or Budweiser, $2.99-$3.49), but our waiter eagerly informed me of progress of the restaurant's application with the Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control, as El Rocoto hopes to soon start serving Peruvian beer and wine. The restaurant also serves sodas ($1.49), plus imported drinks, such as sweet Inca Cola ($1.49).
El Rocoto reflects the diversity of Peruvian dining with a broad menu of some 70 items (not counting desserts, drinks or side orders), including several dishes suitable as appetizers, with helpings generous enough to share. I sidestepped some of the starch-heavy selections (for example, papa a la huancaina, potatoes in cheese sauce, $5.85) in favor of something more unusual, anticuchos ($8.99). The beef heart is served as three skewers of thinly sliced grilled meat served with hominy, which were appetizing with meaty flavor, and slightly chewy.
A more accessible dish is ceviche, one of Peru's national dishes, here served with fish only, ceviche de pescado, $11.85, or a mix of fish and seafood, ceviche mixto, $12.85. I ordered the former, which arrived overly chewy, but generous, serving of catfish pieces marinated in lime juice with red onions, served over sweet potatoes, hominy and toasted corn.
The menu's entrées are loosely separated into beef, chicken, noodle and seafood options. Jalea ($14.85) was recommended by our friendly server, who was eager to chat about Peru and its food. The dish is a massive heaping of deep-fried fish and seafood, topped with salsa, toasted corn, yucca, limes and red onion. After working for some time through copious amounts of fried white fish, mussels, calamari, scallops, shrimp and more, my plate looked as if I'd hardly made a dent. The serving was embarrassingly large for one, and would easily be a bounty for two.
Bisteck a lo pobre ($10.99) loosely translates to poor man's steak, and was another exceptionally filling dish. A substantial piece of well-cooked steak, topped with french fries, rice, fried plantain and, just for good measure, a fried egg. A solid home-cooked dish, a bargain for the price.
Tallarin verde con pollo ($10.85) reflects Italian influences, and is a dish I would order again. First, there's a mountain of spaghetti, which is bathed in a sublime spinach-basil sauce, then topped with a perfectly moist grilled chicken and, yes, more fried potatoes.
The best entrée I tasted, though, was the pollo a la brasa, another of Peru's famed dishes, served with fries and a mammoth green salad. El Rocoto's mild, chile-rubbed preparation of roast chicken was some of the best I've tasted, succulent and moist. It's served in varying sizes, $5.85 for 1/4 chicken, $8.85 for 1/2, or a full chicken for $15.85.
More of that chicken could be found in the Chinese-style fried rice dish of chaufa de pollo ($8.99). El Rocoto's version could put many local Chinese restaurants to shame, served sizzling hot from the kitchen with great big hunks of roast chicken, cooked egg and bell pepper.
Despite El Rocoto's extensive menu, every dish was served fresh and made-to-order. During my visits, I only managed to scratch the surface of what Peruvian cuisine offers, and could hardly even contemplate dessert, let alone partake, as the main courses were so filling.
Time and again, the same elements came through in virtually every dish the restaurant serves hearty, home-cooked food at bargain prices. I plan to return to discover more gems of Peruvian cooking.
Salt Lake Tribune restaurant reviewer Stuart Melling blogs at gastronomicslc.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or post a response at facebook.com/nowsaltlake.
El Rocoto Peruvian Restaurant
Food • HHhj
Mood • Hhj
Service • HH
Noise • bb
At this Peruvian restaurant, where the menu reveals influences of Spain, Italy and China, appreciate the home-cooked food, and stick around for the service and relaxed atmosphere.
Location • 3904 W. 3500 S., Suite B West Valley City; 801-963-2657
Online • http://www.elrocotoutah.com
Hours • Monday to Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Wednesday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 12 a.m.; and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Children's menu • Yes
Prices • $
Liquor • Beer
Reservations • Not accepted
Takeout • Yes
Wheelchair access •Yes
Outdoor dining •No
On-site parking • Yes
Credit cards • All major