Tuesday, June 14, 2011

El Gaucho Inca - A Star if Born! Authentic Peruvian, Argentinean and Italian Cuisines in Fort Myers

Fort Myers has a refreshingly new destination restaurant just off Colonial Blvd and Winkler with delicious food, friendly service and great prices. Some of the food will be quite familiar, some won’t-it’s well worth your while to come and experience it! El Gaucho Inca serves three cuisines- via co-owner Rocio Navarette’s Peruvian heritage, and also Argentina’s Italian and Latin cuisines from her co-owner/husband/chef Mariano Maldonado’s upbringing.
 The restaurant had been open for only six weeks, and has its share of regulars already. I went with friends on an expectedly slow Sunday, which turned out to be not so slow after all. Word of a very good restaurant gets around quickly.

The restaurant is tucked back in a shopping center at the prior site of Artistic Deli, 1.2 miles west of I-75 on Colonial Blvd, and perhaps a half block west of Winkler, on the north side of Colonial. There’s plenty of parking outside, and no shortage of friendly people inside.
Enter, and you are quickly greeted by Oscar a professional server who’s also a chef, or by Rocio, who is easy to spot with her braids, friendly nature and traditional clothing.

The triple nature of the cuisines is reflected in the tripartite décor. As you enter, you’re facing a wine display.
 To the left is the Argentinean area with a typical cow skin on the wall, highlighting bolas, decorative belts, hats, pan flutes, horse shoes and other gaucho paraphernalia.
 Further down on the wall on your right are attractive custom woven Peruvian tapestries and nicely displayed colorful pottery.
 The tables are topped with maps of Italy, of course. The restaurant name, Gaucho Inca, honors the Argentinean gaucho, or cowboy, and the Inca Indian and culture, as well as the heritages of the two owners.. The Artistic Deli’s once wide open kitchen is now walled off- one can only wonder what secret culinary alchemy is performed within its walls!

Chef Mariano is certainly an alchemist, weaving Peruvian and Argentinean fruits, meats and spices into wonderfully flavored dishes. His Italian mother’s hand-makes the gnocchi and other pastas from scratch, naturally. There’s no “fusion confusion” here-the menu lists the dishes and their patrimony separately, and dishes and their spicing remains traditionally pure.
We started with the delicious $26 Intipalka Valle de Sol Tannat, 2009, a bold wine from Peru’s Tannat grape. (The grape hails from southern France- the South American clones have less pronounced tannins than their predecessor.) The taste is of layers of currant, dark cherry and blackberry-like complexity, with a welcome balance of tannins and a smooth finish, similar to a good Cabernet Sauvignon. Highly recommended. There's a good selection of other wines, including Malbec, Shiraz, Cabs and whites, representing wines from South America to Spain.
   The table next to us had a large jar of freshly made lemonade-the kids drank it as if there was no tomorrow-it’s gotta be good! There are various children's meals at kid-friendly prices.

The menu offers Peruvian delights such as three ceviches ($11-13), choros a la chalaca ($7) (mussels), Jalea (fried seafood) for $14, parihuela seafood (15), tacu tacu, and tallarines verdes (10), aji de gallina (shredded chicken stew $9, various causas and papa rellena as a special (5).

Argentinean, or gaucho classics include Milanesa a la Napolitana, canelones, fettucini a lo Alfredo, raviolis, gnocchi, matambre flank steak, empanandas, achurras, fideos con cmaraones and wonderful steaks. Argentinean and Uruguayan steaks are the worlds best-so full of flavor! Argentina is half Italian in heritage and cuisine-many say the Italian food is the best in the world outside of Italy!

Hot sliced fresh bread quickly arrived with a nice crisp crust, a great help when dipping into the generous portion of addictively good huacatey sauce. This uniquely delicious black mint-based sauce gives a welcome mild peppery heat-don’t dip too much, or you’ll fill up too early.

We went for the Peruvian menu, and the first appetizer, the Peruvian tamal, is the size of any three Mexican tamales! The corn tamale comes with aji amararillo (yellow pepper) and salsa criolla for $5. We chose pork rather than chicken and were very, very happy!
The large rectangular tamale is enough for two as an appetizer, or a meal for a lighter eater. We enjoyed its bold flavors and texture! It’s a pretty presentation, with twin artful garnishes of corn kernels, sliced red onion and tomato with flecks of fresh parsley. Recommended!

How can one have Peruvian food without papa a la Huancaina? The quality of the Huancaina sauce at a Peruvian restaurant is said to be indicative of the chef’s, and the following meal’s overall quality. The Huancayo-style Yukon Gold like potatoes are boiled, sliced, placed on a bed of crisp green lettuce, then covered with a thick blanket of creamy cheese sauce.
The sauce traditionally contains fresh white farmers cheese (queso blanco), aji Amarillo (yellow pepper), evaporated milk and sometimes onions and garlic. The $6 dish is served cold, topped with Peruvian black olives and sliced boiled egg and garnished with bright green lettuce. It’s authentic and nicely spiced with the aji Amarillo-call this mild-medium heat for Midwestern American gringo tastes. . The El Gaucho Inca version is a hit- we know the rest of the meal will be delicious, too!

Palta is the Peruvian word for avocado, and the palta rellena with shrimp is a Gaudi-esque pair of stuffed avocados, based on two peeled avocado halves which in turn rest on a bright green lettuce base. These halves are traditionally filled with diced shrimp, sweet red onion, diced red tomato, green peas, corn, peppers, lemon juice and bits of cilantro in a mayonnaise base.
The stuffing is topped with the other avocado halves, drizzled with mayonnaise and crowned with sliced boiled egg. This vibrantly colored dish is a delight. You can taste each component by itself, as well as mixed with the lush avocado and mayonnaise. For $8, you have a delicious full meal with shrimp!

Conchitas a la Parmesana ($12) are six attractive scallop shells filled with tender scallop, milk, butter, pepper brandy or Pisco liquor and spices, which are broiled till the cheese starts to get crisp and bubbling, yet not blistering. Highly recommended.
The bold flavors are wonderful, and the texture is unique. See if you can identify the “secret” ingredients. I’m ordering this classic dish next time, too-what more can I say about a finely crafted appetizer!

The attractively presented twin wooden skewers of shrimps ($12) are marinated in a subtle chimichurri sauce, then broiled. Chimichurri is an Argentinian sauce with parsley, fresh oregano, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes, used on beef, chicken and pork.
 Served on a bed of chopped lettuce with red onion and lime, they are delicioso! They are served shell on, keeping in all the flavor. They easily peel and are nicely seasoned. The marinade complements, rather than competing with the tender shrimp’s sweet taste. Recommended!

Time for main courses!
Lomo saltado is a Peruvian classic, with the sliced steak sautéd in a wok, traditionally with sliced tomatoes, red onions, aji amarillo, soy sauce, cilantro, red wine vinegar and Peruvian herbs and spices. While Peruvians mixed it with crisp French fries, they have learned to keep them on the side for gringos.
 The fries are ok. There’s a tower of white rice to soak up the vibrant, slightly salty sauce. This is a very good version of the dish, and filling-where else can you get a steak dish for $12?

Peruvian Pescado a lo macho is a basa fish filet that’s sautéed, then topped with shrimp, mussels, octopus, calamari, scallops and other seafood with a mildly spiced classic cream sauce, and served with rice for $15. It’s delicious!
Achuras ($18) features grilled chinchulines, morcilla, molleja y chorizo, or sausage with organ meats with grilled peppers. This combination of organ meats to many Argentineans features the country’s best grilled flavors. I’ve sampled this dish from Buenos Aires to Iguazu Falls, and down to Calafate to fine tune my taste buds. My single order is beautifully presented on a special wooden platter, with an attached horseshoe holding my choice of nicely grilled sliced eggplant. Another side dish has grilled or baked asparagus, mushrooms, other goodies and spices.
 The morcilla, or blood sausage is plump, nicely spiced and cooked- it is excellent-the star of the plate! The chinchulines are very good, crunchy and tender. Mollejas (sweetbreads) are good, too properly grilled, tender and crisp. The mollejas have a slight breading-like surface that I’ve not had before=a good variation. The chorizo is mild, firm, tasty and not fatty. Oscar wisely suggested we start immediately on this dish to best appreciate its crispness. What puts the dish over the top are the variety of grilled sweet red, green and yellow peppers-a vegetarian (or I) could make a meal on these! This beautifully presented and cooked classic dish is highly recommended as the perfect reward for a more daring diner.

On a future visit we’ll try the handmade gnocchi, steaks, and other offerings.
The $4 Peruvian Lucuma fruit cake (torta de lucuma) is a big wedge of yellow cake drizzled with the exotic lucuma syrup. The moist cake has an additional bonus-a layer of richly sweet dulce de leche and of lucuma, and is topped with a light lucuma glaze.. This is a heavenly, must-have dessert!
Argentinean flan ($5) is richer in layers of taste and firmer than say Cuban or other Caribbean flans, and it has a caramelized taste, as it may be topped with caramel or dulce de leche. (FYI The French have a similar Confiture de Lait. Cajeta, or dulce de leche made with goat’s milk instead of cow’s, is popular in parts of Mexico and South America.) Our flan was finished quickly!
 I’m fond of the Argentinean Havanna brand of alfajores-light cookies bonded with a central layer of dulce de leche (manjar blanco), of course.

Coming on a Sunday can have it’s challenges, some places run out of things- only enpanadas and cherimoya ice cream were not available on our visit.
   The restaurant offers outside catering, and can be reserved for business meetings or private parties. Call to see what nights offer Peruvian folkdance. Argentinean tango with Pablo Repun may be featured in a few months. Peruvian and Argentinian food is boldly spiced, not overly spiced, and a welcome treat. El Gaucho Inca’s food is delicious, authentic, and a welcome addition to the Fort Myers dining scene.

Lunch and dinner are served, closed Mondays.
Photos of many dishes are on the website at elgauchoinca.com

4391 Colonial Blvd, 275-7504


Anonymous said...

All of the Peruvian food looks delicious. Hopefully you'll go back, so you can post pictures of the Argentinean food too!

Ivan Seligman said...

Yes, I'll be back!

The achuras are an Argentinian treat, and I look forward to try the steaks and other specialities.