The borrego al pebre at Inka South American Cuisine, the new South American restaurant on Westheimer, is a rack of lamb served over an olive oil and pepper sauce. The rack I got on my most recent visit was cut into two double chops. The meat was crusted with spices and perfectly cooked to a succulent medium-rare. It came with a battered and deep-fried avocado quarter on the side.
The pepper sauce under the lamb chops was an innovative variation on pebre, the Chilean salsa that is usually made with chopped onions, chopped tomatoes, olive oil and minced aji peppers. At Inka they use roasted Anaheim chiles instead of the South American ajis to produce a "Tex-Mex pebre."
My tablemate got the churrasco, which featured tenderloin of beef and tenderloin of pork sliced thin and char grilled. The meats were topped with a spicy chimichurri sauce and served with crispy yucca chunks. The pork was cooked to an appropriate pink, but the beef was a little too well done. The Argentine parsley pesto that covered the grilled meats added a garlicky kick.
My other dinner mate got the huachinango con coco, which is billed as "annatto-rubbed grilled snapper." Annatto is the orange dye used to color cheddar cheese and is also the principal ingredient in achiote sauce. The crunchy topping that coated the fish had lots of annatto in it, but it also included some sort of breading. And the crispy orange fish tasted like it had been fried rather than grilled — not that I am complaining. It tasted stupendous when dipped into the rich and creamy coconut shrimp sauce that came on the side.
Our dinner started with three South American soups. The most intriguing was a hearty potato soup with a fish stock base called locro de papa. There was also a sweet potato and peanut soup that I found thick and satisfying, though it would have been better balanced if the chef had added a little heat to the seasonings. A chicken and corn soup was reminiscent of the rustic, Colombian chicken soup called ajiaco, with its coarsely chopped chicken and vegetables and corn rounds still on the cob — except that it was short on the aji peppers. Or maybe I'm just chile-obsessed.
Most of the food at Inka is terrific. Chef/owner David Sanchez, a Culinary Institute of America grad, describes the fare as "South American-inspired," but his Nuevo Latino menu aims for excitement over authenticity. Sanchez once worked with the Cordua gang at Artista. He was also the founding chef of Julia's Bistro on Main Street.
Chef Sanchez has come up with lots of new ideas at Inka, and he has also borrowed freely from his previous gigs. As soon as you sit down at Inka, you get a basket of crispy plantain chips, just like at the Cordua restaurants. The chips come with two bowls of salsa, an Argentine chimichurri and a tangy orange sauce. Starches at Inka include sweet potato fries and fried yucca wedges, just like at Julia's Bistro.
I ate at Inka three times and, thanks to some glorious spring weather, I sat outside on the patio under the metal palm tree sculptures on all three visits. The patio, which overlooks Westheimer, is flanked by bright orange pillars. The tables, both inside and outside, are handpainted by David Sanchez's mother in bright colors with bold designs depicting watermelon slices and flower arrangements.
At lunchtime one afternoon, I sampled the festive-looking empanadas. The chicken-filled empanada was bright yellow on the outside, while the pulled pork version was bright red. My dining companion liked the filling with big tender pieces of white meat chicken the best — I liked the spicy pulled pork better. The best entrée I ate at lunch that day was a plate of huge, juicy shrimp fried in a plantain crust and served in a peanut-coconut sauce.
I also sampled some knockout cold fish dishes from the ceviche section of the menu that afternoon. My favorite was the choritos ala chalaca, green-lipped New Zealand mussels served cold with a corn and red onion salsa on top. And the tiny clams, which came with a salsa that tasted like it was spiked with tequila, were outrageous.
Inka's signature ceviche, a traditional presentation of lime juice-marinated seafood including shrimp, scallops and fish tossed with chopped onion, jalapeño and cilantro, is stellar.
But some of the most interesting-sounding ceviches at Inka, like coco chino ceviche with coconut milk and sandía ceviche with watermelon juice, weren't nearly as successful. Adding a liquid like coconut milk or watermelon juice to a fish marinated in lime juice doesn't change the flavor much — the seafood still tastes like limes.
I remember the watermelon ceviche Sanchez served at Julia's Bistro as being much better. It was tossed with slivers of watermelon and bits of onion and ginger. When you ate a bite of the fish, you got the other strong flavors on your fork too. The only way to get a strong watermelon flavor in the version of sandía ceviche served at Inka is to drink the marinade after you finish eating the fish.
Don't laugh. In South America, macho men always drink the ceviche marinade — it's reputed to prevent the resaca, as a hangover is known down there.
The first meal I ate at Inka was breakfast. Actually, I ate two breakfasts there one recent Saturday. Next door to the main restaurant is a small cafe that opens at 6 a.m. I stopped in for hot-out-of-the-fryer churros filled with cajeta and a cup of Katz's coffee at around nine a.m. That's when I found out the main restaurant had recently opened and they were serving a weekend brunch. So I returned around noon with two companions.
We started with enormous bowl-sized cups of coffee and fresh-squeezed juice. I got a dish of grilled sirloin chunks tossed with an extremely spicy rocoto chile sauce and topped with two fried eggs. There were home fries and a small arepa, or corn pancake, served on the side. My dining companions got arepas with poached eggs and lots of tropical fruit. I knew I was going to like Inka the second I bit into those hot-as-hell eggs.
David Sanchez walked around the patio in his chef's whites while we ate brunch. At the table beside us, he explained how he chose this out-of-the-way West Houston location.
"I live in the Heights, but it would have cost me a lot more money to build this place there — if I could even get a liquor permit," he said. "Washington Avenue used to be cheap, but the rents are now four times higher than they were a couple of years ago."
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Westheimer beyond the Beltway has long been a good place to look for inexpensive ethnic food including Thai, Bosnian, Persian, Mexican and Vietnamese fare. But the reasonable rents out there are also attracting upscale eateries these days. The new shopping center where Inka is located, just past the Phoenicia supermarket, is also home to Bluefin, an elegant sushi restaurant owned by the same group that owns The Fish and Uptown Sushi. Fuegovivo, a new Brazilian churrascaria, is right down the street near Jimmy Wilson's. Whether these upscale restaurants will succeed in attracting crowds from other parts of the city remains to be seen.
Inka has only been open for a month, but it's already humming. And it should be — it's one of the most exciting new restaurants in Houston. But then again, a Nuevo Latino cafe with a casual vibe and outstanding cooking would probably do well anywhere in Houston.
If I have one complaint with Inka, it's that the seasonings are so inconsistent. Some of the food, like the lamb chops and the eggs over sirloin, is hot and spicy. And some, like the soups and ceviches, is undersalted and underseasoned.
I understand that everyone doesn't like their food as spicy as I do and that South American cuisine is not necessarily picante. So how about allowing for a little audience participation? Put some saltshakers and some South American pepper sauces out on the tables and let us season it ourselves.