Bland-looking shopping centers are the portals to Silicon Valley’s best food. The South Bay’s culinary strength lies in its so-called ethnic food, traditional restaurants typically found in shopping centers where rent is cheap. In these places, one can find food cooked by immigrants for immigrants;and for those who know their way around the strip malls of the valley.
If there’s a spot that epitomizes Silicon Valley’s shopping-center-based cuisine, it’s Sunnyvale’s Lakewood Shopping Center. Located off Lawrence Expressway just east of 101, the collection of shops seems unremarkable to the untrained eye, but a closer look reveals the variety of South Bay dining in one stop. There’s the great Hong Kong Saigon dim sum restaurant as well as a Japanese restaurant, a Mexican restaurant, a Vietnamese restaurant, a pizza place, a bubble tea emporium and even a Chinese grocery store. Last week, I made a discovery at the very end of the shopping center: Puro Peru.
This Peruvian restaurant actually took the place of another Peruvian restaurant I never made it to. The owners have done a great job with the dining room;brownish walls, terra-cotta tile details and a tidy-looking corner bar (beer and wine only).
My only gripes are that it’s often too cold, and they endlessly play DVDs of Peruvian concerts on a TV that dominates the dining room. Who wants to watch TV when they go out to eat? But that’s easy to forgive because service is fast and attentive, and the staff clearly likes talking about Peruvian food.
Peruvian cuisine sounds exotic, but at least as far as it’s expressed in Silicon Valley, it’s quite tame. There’s a lot of meat and potatoes, and rice and beans; often all on the same plate. It many ways, it resembles Spanish food, with paella-like dishes, grilled and fried seafood and stewed meats.
There’s a Japanese influence that runs through the cuisine as evidenced by stir-fry dishes such as lomo saltado ($13.50): strips of beef and vegetables pan fried with a light soy sauce/wine glaze and fried potatoes. It tastes somewhat as if a 1970s Midwestern housewife decided to get a little zany and spice up the same old steak and potatoes.
Other standards take familiar ingredients and render them into something different. Tacu tacu de carne ($14) is basically a fried patty of rice and beans with a thin steak and fried egg on top. How’s that for comfort food? But there’s something about the fried rice and bean concoction that’s especially delicious.
Causa de pollo ($8.50) consists of basically super smooth mashed potatoes layered with overly mayonnaisey chicken salad and a squiggle of more mayo on top. Skip this one.
For me, the real glory of Peruvian food is ceviche, and Puro Peru serves one of the best versions of the citrus-marinated seafood ($14) I’ve ever had. It’s a simple dish: chunks of fresh fish and shellfish that are “cooked” by the citrus acid of limes. Onions, chiles and cilantro add heat and depth of flavor. But there’s something extra in the “leche de tigre,” as the opaque juice that bathes the seafood is called. It has a wonderfully savory, faintly garlicky essence that had me spooning it up after the seafood was gone.
Closely related to ceviche and almost as good was the tiradito de pescado ($11), strips of similarly marinated fish painted with aji amarillo, a creamy, yellow sauce made from a distinctive but mild-flavored pureed chile pepper.
In addition to the ceviche, one of my favorite things at Puro Pero is actually free. It’s the little bowl of “chicano” you get before the meal along with the Peruvian-style corn nuts. Chicano is an opaque fish broth tinged with cilantro and what tastes like a squirt of lime juice. It’s bracingly fresh, pleasantly salty and tastes like it’s really good for you if you’re coming down with a cold.
The chupe de camarones ($14), a milk and chile pepper-based shrimp soup, was good but would have been better without the addition of so much rice. But rice is a big part of Peruvian food, so I guess that’s my problem.
For something to drink, try the maracuya ($2), a house-made passion-fruit beverage, or the chicha morada ($2), a slightly viscous drink made with purple corn, pineapple juice and apple juice.
And for dessert be sure to order the alfajores, chewy dulce de leche sandwiched between two discs of flaky, buttery shortbread sprinkled with powered sugar. Delicious.
Shopping centers are where it’s at.