Peru to the Yucatan in 88 blocks. That's the distance on Biscayne Boulevard between the new Sabor a Perú at 29th Street and the relocated Burritos Grill Café at 117th. The former is a small, informal 30-seat space, so clean and shiny it looks like it could be a fast-food joint (former tenant was Frankitude). The cooking, however, is slow, as in warm and caringly prepared — just like homemade Peruvian cuisine should be.
On the suggestion of a genial waitress, we started with ocopa: slices of boiled potatoes bathed in a vibrant green sauce of the same name that's culled from huacatay (an aromatic Andean herb) and blended with an unlikely roster of ingredients — red onion, garlic, spicy aji amarillo peppers, toasted peanuts, vanilla wafers, white cheese, and evaporated milk — poured over the potatoes and garnished with an egg slice and an olive. Papa a la huancaína brings similarly boiled spuds coated in what might be described as an extremely refined nacho cheese dip — if paler in color, lighter, creamier, and more delicately piquant. Huancaína sauce with crisp, cleanly fried logs of yuca is just as gratifying and provides more in the way of textural contrast.
A Peruvian restaurant without ceviche is like a Peruvian province without potatoes. Shrimp, mussels, octopus, and sea bass, individually or in combos, constitute Sabor's selection of macerated seafoods. The last was luscious — pristine pieces of fish softly soaked in lime juice laced with cilantro and threads of red onion. A hefty wedge of cool, cooked sweet potato comes on the side, as does a short cob of colossally kerneled choclo (corn).
A huge platter of arroz con mariscos encompasses shrimp, squid, octopus, and mussels paella-style with wet annatto-colored rice — it whets the appetite, but the portion is really for two people (especially at lunchtime, when we had it), and should probably be designated as such. Still, it's only $14.99, which is as expensive as things get; entrées start at $9.99. These are fine numbers for dinner, though the same menu during the day proves a pricier proposition. Consider the daily lunch special, often a soup and main course, which rings in at just $6.99.
The Peruvian stir-fry lomo saltado jumped with juicily seared slices of beef, red onions, tomato wedges, and fresh French fries; a steamy dome of white rice came on the side. The same rice, but with a fried egg on top, accompanied bistec a lo pobre, which, as you probably know, translates to "steak for a journalist." The meat was thin and a tad tough, but pleasantly punched with garlic and seasonings. Other components on the plate were dark red kidney beans in lots of cooking liquid, and nubs of fried sweet plantains.
Suspiro a la Limeña, or "Lima sigh," is a thick dulce de leche-like pudding (although the caramelized milk paste in this case is called manjarblanco) — piqued with a pinch of Port wine, topped with meringue, and sprinkled with cinnamon powder. This dessert might be too cloyingly sweet for some; mini dulce de leche sandwiches (alfajores) are less so. Nothing Peruvian about key lime pie, but somehow Sabor makes one of the best in town, notable for its densely creamy custard (a special on one of the days we visited, and not always available).
A glass of house wine or sangria is $4.99, but this chow cries out for beer. Try Cerveza Cusqueña, a premium lager prepared near Machu Picchu and brewed from Andean mountain water. Chicha morada, derived from the Incas, is a refreshing bluish beverage of boiled purple maize sweetened with pineapple and lightly spiked with cinnamon and cloves. Tropical fruit juices and smoothies are offered too, though these are more fitting for breakfast or lunch. Sabor officially runs from 10 in the morning until 10 at night, but at times it stays open later. We dropped by at 9:30 p.m. one evening, and an hour later the place was packed. As it should be.
Four months ago, Burritos Grill Café moved eight blocks south of its prior location on Biscayne Boulevard, where it had stood since 1999. The old space was smaller and more intimate, but the new restaurant has 75 seats plus an outdoor patio, easier parking, and a larger kitchen. The strengths of this Mex café, however, remain the mom-and-pop appeal provided by on-site owners Mario Manzanero and wife/chef Karina, who has been cooking since she was 14; there's also the welcoming demeanor and accommodating nature of the staff, as well as the simple, satisfying renditions of "Mexican cuisine Yucatán-style." Much of the menu is actually closer to Mexican cuisine Mexican-style, some of it Mexican-American-style. But the nachos, tostadas, quesadillas, and such are defined by freshness and executed with aplomb.
We started with a complimentary basket of crisp yellow corn chips and zesty tomato salsa (a small dish of smooth, mellow guacamole is worth the $2 surcharge). Next we segued into salbutes, capped with shredded chicken and a small dice of tomato and onion.
Poc-chuc was a thin, grilled, delectable pork loin cutlet that had been pounded and then marinated in seasoned sour orange juice before cooking. Pickled onions and roasted tomato sauce, not only customary but also promised on the menu, were replaced by a side of tomato-and-onion salad. It is only a slight exaggeration to say pickled onions are the ketchup of the Yucatan (in that they are put on nearly everything); Burritos should not run out of them.
The restaurant didn't have any more cochinita pibil the first time around either, but on a return visit, we enjoyed the moist morsels of marinated pork (baked in banana leaves for eight hours) atop three corn tortillas. Most main courses cost $9 to $14 and are plated with sparkling renditions of yellow rice and refried pinto beans.
A disturbingly gringo touch was molé sauce over a chicken breast. The same bland cut of bird also comes shredded and rolled into an enchilada that gets bathed in the same dark, mildly spicy, good-but-not-great molé (although admittedly a great molé is hard to come by in these parts). Beverages of choice here are Dos Equis, Corona, and Pacífico.
We ended on a high note: a moist homemade banana cake absolutely bursting with that fruit's flavor, sweetly glazed, and chaperoned by a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Like Sabor a Perú, Burritos Grill Café is fresh, fun, family-run, and pleasantly affordable. You might even say depression-friendly.