Tito Arianzen's route to restaurant ownership may have taken him in a strange direction -- one that ran straight through the Medical Center -- but it landed him in a good place: Super Rico on Hillcroft. If you develop a yen for Peruvian food, Super Rico is the place to satisfy it, perhaps the only place to satisfy it, in Houston. The blazing exterior neon sign is a suggestion of the colors found inside, which mirror those (red, white, red) of the Peruvian flag. Posters advertising cheap flights to Lima and others promoting Andean music groups indicate you've found the right place. Apart from a few native artifacts hanging from the walls, Super Rico is sparsely decorated, but what the place lacks in appearance it more than makes up for in the food and the atmosphere.
Tito and wife Fabiola provide Houston's small Peruvian population -- which is estimated at 3,000 -- not just a place to feast on the cuisine of their homeland, but a sort of cultural center as well. On weekends, the food is augmented by live Peruvian music. It's not augmented early, though: If you arrive before, say, 8 p.m., don't be surprised if you're the only customer there. It's after 9 or 10 p.m. that things begin to get into full swing, and since Super Rico is open until the wee hours -- 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday -- there's no sense showing up too early and missing half the fun.
The Arianzens' story, like that of many immigrants, has more than a few twists. Before Peruvian native Fabiola made her way to Houston, she spent time in Seattle finishing school and in New York getting married and starting a family. But 18 years ago she decided New York was no place to raise kids, so she brought herself and her two children to Texas. Here, in the early '90s, she ran across Tito, who had ended up in a Medical Center hospital bed after a fall from a horse during his military service in Peru left him paralyzed.
Tito's doctors in Peru had given him only a few months to live and said it would take a miracle for him to recover. The Medical Center provided the miracle, and after eight months of treatment he was up and about and ready to meet the by-this-time-divorced Fabiola. The rest, as they say, is history. Tito's military experience had been as the manager of a military canteen, and so the couple decided to try the restaurant business. Judging by the food Tito now prepares, the soldiers in Peru ate well. Both Tito and Fabiola are fixtures in Super Rico, constant presences who tend to their customers with wide smiles of genuine appreciation.
Unfortunately, since they have yet to receive their liquor license, you cannot sample the national drink of Peru, Pisco Sour, a potent drink made from a Peruvian brandy. You can, however, get a Peruvian Cusquena, beer that has a little more flavor than run-of-the-mill American beers. There are also a pair of unusual non-alcoholic drinks worth trying. One is the chicha morada, an Inca drink made from purple corn infused in water along with pineapple, sugar, lemon juice and cinnamon. This Andean beverage, served over ice, is exceptionally refreshing, as well as being a visual treat. The rich, deep-purple colored liquid, made thick by the pineapple, is sweet and tart at the same time. The Inca Kola is a fizzy, canned Peruvian soft drink that tastes like a cream soda mixed with a hint of bubble gum flavor. So popular is this drink in Peru that it outsells Coca-Cola there.
Since Peru has a long coastline, seafood occupies a venerated spot on the menu. And since ceviche originated in Peru, you'd expect the Arianzens to do a good job with the dish, as indeed they do. Two different kinds of ceviche are offered here. My favorite is the ceviche mixto; easily large enough to share, it comes as a mound of seafood that includes calamari, shrimp, mussels and red snapper, all swimming in the lemon juice in which they have been marinating, along with heaps of onion slices and garlic. A boiled sweet potato and a truncated ear of corn are included for looks as much as taste, and as a reminder that both of these vegetables have their roots deep in Peruvian culture.
The success of a good ceviche lies in the right contrast of colors, shapes, tastes and textures, all of which come together exquisitely here. A nice heat level is obtained by the addition of an aji pepper, a small, bright yellow/orange pepper diced into almost imperceptible pieces. Another platter, the ceviche pescado, is much more mundane, since it contains only pieces of marinated red snapper. But, though plain, it's nevertheless delightful.
Plain is hardly the word to use for Super Rico's soups. When I noticed the $8.49 price for one of them, I was surprised, since everything else on the menu seemed such a bargain. But I discovered that the parihuela especial is no ordinary bowl of soup -- it's a meal unto itself, a soup that could sustain you on a trek up the Andes or down the Amazon. The parihuela is filled to the brim with seafood, this time floating in a rich, dark seafood stock that's enhanced by the addition of lots of white wine and cilantro. A plate of white rice is served on the side, and can be eaten as a side dish. But the Peruvian way is to dump it straight into the soup, which not only thickens the mixture but also adds texture. It's unfortunate that parihuela is only available on weekends; it's the sort of meal you could eat with pleasure two or three times a week.
Likewise offered as a weekend treat is the anticuchos, an off-the-menu special that may only appeal to adventurous eaters. Small slices of beef heart are marinated overnight in a dry rub consisting of garlic, black pepper, cumin, oregano, aji panca (a type of spicy red pepper at the heart of Peruvian fare, not unlike an ancho chili in shape and color) and a little vinegar. The meat is then grilled over charcoal. Four pieces are served on a skewer, with three skewers making a serving, along with a piece of corn and the ubiquitous boiled potato. For those not into organ meat, the same treatment can be given to standard beef -- although the beef was a little tougher, and less tasty, than the heart. Both dishes are served with Peru's version of an avocado-green picante sauce, which seems mild by Texas standards.
While I didn't care for the modonguito a la Italiana, it was a visually very appealing dish. Still, no matter how you cook it, tripe -- the modonguito -- has a strong flavor that's hard to hide. The tripe, which had been cut into small strips, had obviously been marinating for quite some time, since it was extremely tender. The visual appeal comes from its being mixed with French fries and carrots and then coated with Parmesan cheese; the different colors and shapes look very appetizing.
The picante de mariscos also looks good, and was more suited to my taste. A salute to the Spanish paella, it has a kick thanks to the aji pepper. Since the same basic assortment of fish is used in many of Super Rico's dishes, I wasn't surprised to find shrimp, calamari, scallops and mussels here, as well as peas and carrots, which add to the color spectrum. Instead of being a fairly dry dish like its paella cousin, the picante de mariscos is kept moist by a thick, spicy, mustard-yellow sauce. Served over white rice, this is another of those sustaining dishes that's served not on a plate but on a platter. The arroz frito de mariscos is the Peruvian equivalent of fried rice; it, too, contains the familiar fish ingredients, although it's drier than the picante and all of the ingredients are mixed together, turning the rice a bright, saffron yellow color.
In case you think that seafood is all that Super Rico serves, I'm happy to advise that one of the house specialties is the pollo a la brasa, i.e., charcoal chicken. Half of a juicy chicken that has been marinated, then slow roasted on the grill, is served with French fries and a salad. It's a fortifying meal, but one that lacks the vibrancy and originality of some of Super Rico's other offerings.
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The mazamorra morada, a sort of purple-corn fruit compote with a very great affinity to the chicha morada drink, is a good way to top off your meal. It contains a lot more fruit than the chicha morada and is significantly thicker. Also made from purple corn, it's thickened with sweet potato flour until it has almost a gelatin-like consistency -- with all of the pineapple, prunes and other fruit that are crammed into it, eating it is like eating a fruit jam. The pionono, a slice of rolled-up sponge cake with a delicate, creamy interior, can quickly evoke childhood memories of similar jam-filled varieties.
You can sense the pride with which the Arianzens serve their native dishes, especially to non-natives, as if introducing North Americans to the pleasures of Peru is in some way a measure of their success. And maybe it is. They don't need fancy surroundings to serve memorable meals. Their regular customers already know this. Now it's up to the rest of us to find this out.
Super Rico, 6121 Hillcroft, 271-3056.
Super Rico: chicha morada, $1.20; ceviche mixto, $6.49; parihuela especial, $8.49; anticuchos, $4.99; picante de mariscos, $9.99; pollo a la brasa, $5.49; mazamorra morada, $1.49.