There is, I believe, a place in the world for what might be called the "entry level" restaurant. This is the sort of place to go when you might be trying out a particular cuisine for the first time. You're curious, you'd like to test the waters, you're looking for a reliable representation of, say, Moroccan or Cuban or Korean food, but you don't want to put your next car payment in jeopardy to do it.
Inka Mama's is a good example of the type. A little storefront place in a large shopping center in Foothill Ranch, it specializes in that interesting hybrid of tastes, textures and ingredients-Peruvian food.
It was opened 2 1/2 years ago by sisters Angela Kishijara and Martha White, who came to Southern California from Chimbota, Peru 15 years ago. Having served time on the staffs of other Southern California restaurants, they opened Inka Mama's as their first venture into restaurant ownership.
Kishijara and White have 10 other siblings, and the kitchen back in Peru was in an almost constant state of high activity, said Kishijara.
"Our mother was always in the kitchen cooking for us," she says. "And she was an inspiration to all of us kids to learn how to cook."
Inka Mama's, she says, is an homage to her mother's cooking, and many recipes on the menu were learned in her mother's kitchen, particularly the restaurant's signature dish, Pescado a lo Chimbotano. Named for the family's Peruvian hometown, it is fillet of fish cooked in a spicy broth of garlic and chili and prepared with onions and yucca, then finished with chopped cilantro and served with rice.
Such hybrid characteristics are typical of Peruvian food, says Kishijara, where Italian influence can be seen in the liberal use of pasta in many dishes, and where Asian-style rice is almost ubiquitous.
We began with a pair of appetizers: the ceviche mixto and the chicharon de pollo. The ceviche - white fish, calamari and shrimp - is marinated in a pleasant and not-too-spicy chili-cilantro-lime juice. It's served with lightly fried potatoes, yams and red onions. The mix of seafood ran heavily to calamari.
The chicharon de pollo consists of bits of chicken marinated in garlic and deep fried and served with fried yucca and a fine salsa. Thinly sliced and marinated red onions are used in many recipes such as this and they are satisfyingly fresh and not too pungent.
Main courses are generous, so unless you bring a larger-than-usual appetite to the table, plan on taking a good portion of your entr»e home. This was definitely the case with one of the house specialties, the Mama Scampi. This dish can be ordered with scampi or chicken, and we chose the latter. The meat is seasoned breast of chicken in a garlic cream sauce mixed with long pasta and topped with fresh cilantro. The menu billed the sauce as spicy, but if you're used to sauces with real kick, you might be disappointed if you don't ask for some extra fire when ordering. The sauce was smooth, but also a bit on the heavy side. This might have been leavened with more bite.
Another specialty, the estofado, was much more successful in communicating a variety of flavors, and it may be the most colorful dish you've seen in some time. It consists of a choice of chicken breast or a top sirloin steak, pounded thin and bathed (that's the word in the menu, and you'd better believe it) in a spicy garlic/cilantro sauce and served with white rice. The sauce is what might be called sneaky-spicy in that the heat tends to build over time rather than slap you with the first bite. It isn't overpowering but rather rounded and distinct and most definitely green-one of the brightest and most inviting greens I've seen in a sauce, and an indication that the cilantro definitely was not spared. It's served with a small portion of potatoes and yams and enough white rice to soak up all that fine sauce.
The rest of the large menu is divided almost equally into chicken, beef, seafood and vegetarian categories. A good way to size it all up is to linger a bit over a before-dinner drink and watch as the food emerges from the kitchen. It's a fine sight and will prompt you to ask your fellow diners the name of that inviting plate of food in front of them.
About that before-dinner drink? Try one of the Peruvian beers. Very light and refreshing.
Inka Mama's, 26676 Portola Parkway, Suite B, Foothill Ranch. (949) 951-6262.