Recently, I paid a visit to a Peruvian restaurant (read blog) in the Rockville Town Center which left me quite satisfied with their offerings. Perusing online, I came across many glowing reviews for another locale nearby serving the same South American cuisine – even a couple of co-workers had mentioned about their positive experiences at this establishment. And so, with some enthusiasm and such affirmations in mind, I made a couple of trips to this newly discovered restaurant for this review.
La Limeña is tucked in a maze of strip malls, located just off the main thoroughfare, Route 355, in Rockville, MD, a suburban town that is growing in population as well as some good eats. Walking in, you immediately notice the charcoal fueled grills and rotisserie with skewered chickens being turned as that day’s offering. Past a display counter of glowingly seductive desserts, the dining room is actually smaller that what I imagined, perhaps due to the above-mentioned space-takers past the entrance. But the dining room is welcoming with their granite tables filled with a line of smart-looking wait staff appearing eager to please the clientele.
While munching on some complementary plantain chips and fried corn kernels (tasted like crunchy popcorn), I perused the menu and recognized some dishes from my recent blog and from past experiences with another eatery, as well as, interestingly, some Cuban dishes. But I chose to stick with the South American cuisine. A co-worker had mentioned to me to try Anticucho, which is grilled beef heart. Two large skewers with large pieces of the offal arrived with a roasted potato and some pickled onions. The pieces of heart were an interesting texture and flavor; the meaty morsels had a steak texture but with a firmer bounce much like skirt steak, and the flavor was much like beef but with a faint bitter note to remind you that this was not a regular cut of meat. The salt level was sufficient to counteract the bitter note, paired with a faint smoke scent from the grilling, and a mild paprika-like flavor from the marination. I was returning to these bites as I was trying to wrap my taste buds around these new flavors and textures. Even though this dish was a novelty for me, eventually the skewers were a bit on a one-note level, and my interest was weaning off. Another appetizer I had to savor was Empañada de Carne which is famous from this part of the world. The pastry arrived with some powder sugar dusted on top, reminding me of the Moroccan sweet savory pastry, Bastilla, that I recently wrote about. Breaking into it, the pastry was quite tender and flaky. However, going through the filling, I was a bit nonplussed by the use of ground beef (instead of meat pieces), an insufficient amount of seasoning and moisture, and the lack of and the uneven distribution of raisins and olives (a single piece). I must say that this was quite a let-down for a pastry that I am fond of, and surprisingly, in this restaurant.
A trip to a Peruvian eatery usually is not without an order of their famous appetizer – Ceviche. Here, I went for the whole package, Ceviche Mixto, which arrived with pieces of shrimp, squid, and fish, accompanied by some fresh corn, fried corn kernels, and pieces of sweet potato. This rendition of the semi-cooked seafood was quite different from the version I wrote about a few blogs ago. The pieces of shrimp were parboiled judging by their firm quality, the squid rings and tentacles similarly cooked but pliable and non-rubbery, and the pieces of fish were acid-cooked and had a bit firmer bounce than the other place, partly due to the thinner slices compared to the thick cubes in the aforementioned place. Aside from the textural differences, the marinade was a creamier looking liquid with its strong lime juice and a good chili hit that added the necessary acidic and spice to the whole mix that made the whole dish delectable and completely irresistible. The side accompaniments adequately provided the sweet and crunch as a foil to the soft tart seafood. I could see why many customers were ordering this large appetizer as their main course as I satisfyingly finished my dish off.
Continuing with the sea theme, a couple of these dishes were ordered by my dining partners. Parihuela is a coastal seafood soup from Peru (as listed on the menu), and the bowl arrived brimming with sea creatures crawling out of the sea, I mean soup. A taste of the broth indicated the use of a good dosage of garlic, some tomato sauce and white wine for some slight fruitiness, and a good seafood stock for some body. I did not get to taste the pieces of crab, mussels, clams, squid and scallops that looked very fresh and quite large in size. But the orderer left nothing behind, an indication with his level of satisfaction with this bowlful, which he expressed later; the side of perfectly cooked white rice provided the starch to make this dish a meal. The other companion’s order was Trucha Frita al Ajo. A whole boneless trout was lightly floured and pan-fried, partnered with some of that well-cooked rice, fried batons of yucca, and the ubiquitous onion salad. The fish was still moist and tasted fresh with some good proper seasoning that made each bite delightful – a light slathering of butter and some toasted garlic chips added some more flavor and texture to the soft sweet flesh. The side of fried yucca was “meh” according to the diner, but what more can you do with fried root starch.
Aji de Gallina is a renown Peruvian dish that I had seen on menus, and I decided to order it this time. Pieces of stripped chicken (dark meat, my preference), arrived coated by a yellowish sauce. According to the menu description, the chicken has been cooked in a concoction of milk, yellow aji (mild Peruvian pepper), and spices to produce this rather thick stew. The first forkful reminded me of some good Chicken Pot Pie filling, and I kept going back to it for its savoriness and sense of comfort-food that the rich stew spoke to my tongue. Yes, it is a simple dish with uncomplicated flavors, but I could imagine this as a go-to dish when one is under the weather or longing for some TLC. The single olive (sigh, but so tasty), boiled egg, boiled potato, and rice made up the rest of the meal to round off the experience. An order on another day was Pollo a la Brasa, or Rotisserie Chicken. The first mouthful pointed towards a moist and smoky chicken, albeit a bit oversalted for my taste. After getting past the skin, the seasoning was adequate for the meat. The side of black beans was very appetizing, with their not-so-overly softness (obviously freshly made), their slight oregano scent, and a level of smokiness from liquid smoke since I didn’t taste any meat flavor in the bowl. Interestingly, beans do not automatically come with rice here; hence, I had to get some from the seafood soup diner.
Usually not one for sweets after a meal, I knew I had to try a couple of interesting sounding desserts. The first was Picarones. Basically, they are doughnuts made from sweet potato and pumpkin flours, served with a caramel-like honey. The beautiful dish arrived with this thin and light fried rings that were slightly crispy on the outside but spongy inside. There was a faint sweet overtone in the dough that reminded of its nature, tasting different from the usual bland wheat flour version. But what took these bites to the “I’m addicted” level was the Chancaca honey that exuded its molasses character along with some bitter orange-like notes which competed for my gastronomic attention as well as the fried bites. Another order was Lucuma ice cream that was recommended by my waitress and is known as the most popular dessert in house. The carotene-orange scoops arrived in a beautiful cup along with an alfajor, a caramel-filled flaky cookie sandwich. The first mouthful was revealing: there was a level of creaminess, a moderate vanilla-note, and a texture that pointed towards that exotic subtropical Andean fruit. The mouth feel of these scoops was slightly akin to smooth sweet potato that was an indication of the fruit’s exotic presence in this frozen custard, along with a faint maple syrup-like flavor. This unique cold bite got my tongue’s attention, even in the midst of late fall, and I was done with the whole bowl before I knew it.
La Limeña offers some truly wonderful authentic dishes from the motherland. Yes, I was not very impressed with the Empanada and a bit underwhelmed by the beef hearts, but I warmed up to the rest of the menu quickly. The Ceviche was as good as it gets, the seafood soup brimmed with incredibly fresh shellfish and crab in a well-made soup, the fried trout was moist and complemented by the fried garlic chips, the charcoal-cooked chicken was smoky and savory even with its slight heavy-handed saltiness, and the Aji de Gallina spoke of Peruvian comfort food. But, it was the desserts that impressed me the most with the Picarones moistened by that incredibly tongue-haunting honey, as well as the subtly exotic Lucuma ice-cream that kept me digging into the bowl. No wonder this place is full all the time with families, couples, and many ex-pats who seem to savor a piece of their nostalgia from this establishment. The ending complementary of Alfajor was the sweet gesture to seal this gastronomic experience for anyone, reviewer or not.