Today was one of the rare days when I tried NOT to eat anything unusual or exotic. I was dining with one of my favorite ex-students, an imminently likable guy from upstate New York who claims to be “a complete pussy when it comes to food”… and those are his words, not mine. In honor of his conservative palate (“my family ate both kinds of food: beef and chicken”), we settled on a venerable, 30-year-old Spanish spot in Jackson Heights called Meson Asturias. My pal with the middle-American taste buds figured that Spanish food would be relatively non-threatening.
But sadly, Meson Asturias’s former location was being thoroughly gutted. No tapas here, unless you want a small plate of drywall or asbestos on a stick. In its next life, that property will probably be something far less interesting than an Asturian restaurant. I’m betting that it will become a Foot Locker or a Curves or a 7-Eleven or an irritatingly trendy fusion restaurant, but that’s just a guess. I’m upset.
Luckily, it’s hard to screw up a trip to Jackson Heights if you’re looking for international food. So we wandered a few blocks over to Urubamba for some Peruvian food.
Urubamba is a clean, comfortable, relatively spacious place with a fairly large, varied menu. The variety was arguably a little bit of a problem: my companion isn’t generally a fan of fish, he had never eaten lamb before, and gave me a terrified look when I said something about octopus and squid. (Admittedly, the word “squid,” which sounds a lot like “squish” or “squalor,” doesn’t sound like something you’d really want to eat. “Squab” doesn’t sound too appealing, either.) So I decided to order the squid-filled mixed ceviche appetizer (with fish, shrimp, squid, and octopus) and a lamb stew.
Ceviche is somewhat of a hit-or-miss proposition: it’s a cold seafood stew, served in a brine of spices, cilantro, and lime juice. Trouble is, the seafood isn’t actually cooked—it’s just marinated in citrus juice until it looks and tastes cooked. It’s not scary at all, unless the quality of the seafood is suspect… in which case, you’re going to be spending some serious quality time in the bathroom of your choice.
I had a good feeling about Urubamba’s mixed ceviche ($14.25), though I decided not to tell my companion (who had never even heard of ceviche) that the seafood isn’t actually cooked with heat. The dish was absolutely beautiful: a huge mound of fish (seabass, I think), calamari rings, octopus bits, shrimp, onion, and cilantro, bathed in a sharp-but-balanced brine of lime, garlic, and hot peppers. The ceviche came with a few chunks of boiled yucca, some yams, a handful of boiled hominy (large, chewy kernels of corn), and another handful of toasted hominy. As much as I loved the ceviche itself, the toasted corn might have been the highlight of the meal for me—it was as crunchy as a corn nut, but tasted like fresh popcorn. (I did a pretty lousy job of making that sound impressive, huh?)
My companion was also pretty excited about the corn, but he was thoroughly repulsed by the texture of the not-really-cooked calamari rings and whitefish, and he was unequivocally terrified by the octopus. Great, more for me!
Sadly, I didn’t have the opportunity to offer my pal his very first taste of lamb, since Urubamba was out of lamb that day. So we settled for a plate of wonderfully tender beef in cilantro sauce (seco combinado, $12.25), served with a gigantic mountain of rice and canary beans (which are not made from real canaries, in case you’re wondering). For our second entrée, we ordered
tacu-tacu (a deliciously oily pilaf of rice mixed with spiced beans) topped with more than a pound of grilled chicken ($12.75). The chicken itself was an insanely tender work of art, as is often the case with Peruvian chicken—which may explain why Peruvian chicken restaurants have become a minor food fad over the past decade or so.
And just in case we weren’t tickled enough by our three spectacular plates of food, the drinks were pretty interesting, too. Chicha de jora ($2.75) is a lightly alcoholic punch, brewed from sprouted, fermented corn and tons of sugar, with a hint of lime: imagine a light, sweet, corn-and-citrus version of hard apple cider, and you’ll be on the right track. The non-alcoholic chicha morada ($2.25) was even better: a fantastic punch brewed from purple corn, sugar, pineapple rind, and lime juice, and topped with a few bits of shaved apple to add a tiny hint of crunch.
The chicha was an afterthought when we ordered our ceviche appetizer, but it turned out to be completely necessary: my poor friend needed a strong, sweet beverage to stop himself from gagging after his first attempt at eating marinated tentacles.
86-20 37th Ave., Queens
90 St – Elmhurst Av (7)