June 11th, 2010 by Brian Schwartz – Comments (27)
A charmer of a Peruvian restaurant brings authentic South American cuisine to Tulsa.
There’s a long and memorable chapter in Moby Dick in which Melville brings to life the terror of white. For him, white evokes blankness and the void. But I’ve been hooked since childhood on the romance of white. On old maps, white meant the undiscovered, the unexplored, the unknown and my fantasies always drew me there. Terra Incognita… perhaps the most seductive phrase my rusty schoolboy Latin has to offer. And on the culinary map of Tulsa, that’s just what South American food was. Unknown territory. Until now.
Acting on a tip from my Colombian gardener, seeking a restaurant that even Google search knows nothing about, our party of intrepid explorers drove along the rugged upper reaches of 81st Street and, somewhere east of Sheridan, turned into a nondescript mini-mall. The name of the restaurant is Mi Tierra but the sign on the door says “Gomez y Compania”. We walked in to find this.
A welcoming place, and full. (I waited until people left to take the photo.) Lots of happy diners, and just about everyone seemed to be from Peru. Many spoke English; we got to talking. You must try this goat stew, said one woman, and she looked like someone whose advice was worth following. A woman dressed in white came from the back. She was the chef. She gave me a postcard-sized card that seemed to be a menu. You could read out the names on the “Special Plates” section and it was a seductive siren song of sultry Peruvian culinary delights. Now this seems a bit overstated, but wait till you hear the names. Pabellon, Bandeja Paisa, Carapulcra, Cholito a la Chalaca, Conchita a la palmesana, Ceviche. And on a blackboard behind us I noticed more: Tacu Tacu, Lomo Saltado, Aji de Gallina. And there at the top. Jalea de Mariscos. I remembered the name Jalea and though I had no idea what it was (except that it involved seafood) I was sure I’d read somewhere it was a famous, glorious Peruvian dish. So we ordered that.
I’ll back up here and share some later research and tell you what the other dishes are. Peruvian cuisine (the most varied and exciting in South America) is a mix of mountain highland and coastal plains, of Inca and Spanish with, surprisingly, some Chinese and African influence too. Mi Tierra covers all the bases, with a few dishes from neighboring countries thrown in. Bandeja Paisa I already knew. That’s my favorite dish from Colombia. It’s usually called Hillbilly Platter (Plato Montanero). It’s a real man’s meal of steak, a piece of deep-fried pork belly as long as your forearm, rice, beans, two fried eggs. Pabellon involves shredded beef. Carapulcra is an ancient Peruvian dish that dates back to Inca days. It’s a sort of stew made from dried potatoes (Incas discovered the potato and learned to freeze-dry it), pork and rice. Ceviche is a glorious thing, served all over South America and in upscale restaurants in New York. It’s simply macerated seafood. Tastes better than it sounds. Raw sushi-grade seafood left overnight in a flavorful, mildly acidic marinade that “cooks” it. Tacu Tacu is rice and beans with onion and a bit of banana. It’s vaguely African, brought over by slaves. Lomo Saltado is sliced steak stir-fried with vegetables. Somewhat Chinese, and in fact Chinese cuisine has had a big impact on Peru. Aji de Gallina is a chicken stew made with milk, hot peppers, and onions.
If I’d known all that I might have ordered the Carapulcra or maybe the chicken stew. But I didn’t so we ordered the Jalea (which was $18) and waited… and waited. Meanwhile the cook in the kitchen was busy preparing whatever we’d ordered. I hadn’t a clue. And another woman had gone in to help her. I was happy to wait there. We talked with the other diners, I strolled around and looked at the foodstuffs (all for sale) on the tall shelves that lined the walls. I thought of buying an handknit wool rug for $70. And then came the chef proudly carrying this:
At first I felt very let down. It’s just fried fish! I just had that in Bixby! But then I tasted it and realized that it was very very VERY GOOD fried fish, and also totally unlike Oklahoma fried catfish or pub-style fish and chips. The cornflour breading was much much finer, and thinner, it accented the fish, brought out the flavor, instead of crunching along and dominating it. When I got home I found photos of Jalea served in restaurants in Peru and it looked exactly the same. And I’m betting that this Jalea rivaled Lima’s best. I also confirmed that yes, Jalea is wildly popular in Peru (at least in the coastal areas), which, given the taste, did not surprise me one bit. Aside from the tender white fish, there were calamari, 5 or 6 mussels in the shell, and a few scallops and shrimp. Also, just as in Peru, kernels of a huge white corn called maiz chulpe scattered about, slices of spicy red onion, a few batons of cassava.
And what I should have said at the start, our very first impression, it was huge! It was a mountain! It’s too big to get in one photo, I said, it’s too big to fit at our table. The $18 price, which seemed so high I couldn’t believe it, now seemed like a good deal. The food stuffed all three of us. And so we dined for $6 each and left happy, already planning our next visit. Will we get the carapulcra or the goat stew?
Restaurant Mi Tierra
6703 E 81 St Tulsa (just east of Sheridan)
Open from 8 AM to 8 PM , Sundays 10 to 6
I’ve collected fifty songs from all over Peru to accompany this review. From sultry singers in smoky Lima nightclubs to Inca bands in the Andes to Amazon jungle tribes, the music of Peru never ceases to amaze. Those nightclub singers are often black, from the coast; those highland bands play instruments going back hundreds of years, and dance forms like the Huayno which fuse traditional and modern rhythms. Have a listen. The recordings were in the main made between 1960 and 1995, but the songs are much older.
About Brian Schwartz:
Born in NYC, age 0, on my birthday. College in Oxford at age 16. Law School in New Haven, Conn. 6 years travel in Africa and Asia. Haven’t done much lately. Still, I’m the only Tulsa member of the little-known Omega Society. www.theomegasociety.com
I speak enough Chinese to order food not on any English menu. Spanish French Italian too (not fluently but food-ently) My favorite restaurant is Jean-Georges in New York. But those NYC chefs would sell their soul to get the produce available from the farms around Inola.
“A writer writes alone. His words tumble forth from a magical inner void that is mysterious even to himself, and that no one else can enter.” And yet, the most important thing to me the writer is YOU. Without you to hear them, my words are worth less than silence.
Tags: South Tulsa