You could say that discovering hole-in-the-wall places is a favorite pastime of mine. I love stumbling onto small, family-owned gems where the cook is the dad or the brother or the uncle or the mother, the server and hostess is wife or mother or sister, and the waitstaff is the daughter or cousin or some part of the extended family.
Sur Latin Peruvian Cuisine, a modest, sliver of a restaurant that just opened three weeks ago near Katy, is one such restaurant. And while I can't take credit for stumbling upon it accidentally (I saw a Facebook post by Latin Bites' chef Robert Castre, which alerted me to its opening), it fits the profile of that typical hole-in-the-wall that I find so endearing.
First of all, it's not just a family affair, but also a lifelong dream of its owners: Pilar Forkel, her cousin Ursula Delgado, her cousin's husband, King Aguilar, and partner and chef Juan Carlos Collomp. Until recently, Forkel worked in sales and Delgado in insurance, and Collomp had a private catering business making fresh Peruvian items like salsichas (Peruvian sausages).
"I am passionate about food," says Forkel, adding, "I've been wanting to do this for a long time." Delgado echoed her sentiments. She said that after she'd spent 18 years in the insurance business, it was time for a change.
Though it's called Sur Latin Peruvian, the tight, focused menu is entirely Peruvian. I liked the straightforward, no-nonsense layout of the menu, fashioned like a small book that opened up to reveal appetizers and soups on the left, entrées to the right, and sandwiches, desserts and drinks on the back cover.
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The prices were reasonable, with most appetizers in the $7 range and entrées maxing out at $15 for the signature lomo saltado, a stir-fried beef dish made of cubed chunks of beef, onion, tomato and french fries that you can find all over Peru. It is usually a must-order for me, a litmus test, if you will. If a restaurant does a good lomo saltado, it's a solid Peruvian restaurant in my book.
Sur's lomo saltado was well-portioned, tasty and hearty. Presented on a square white plate with a small round of white rice and french fries, the large-ish two-inch chunks of tenderloin glistened with a deep brown glaze, combining with sweet pieces of red onion and fresh tomato in a very satisfying way. Though the french fries could have been a bit crisper, I thoroughly enjoyed this dish, and would definitely order it again.
I apply the same thought process to Peruvian ceviche. Without a doubt the national dish of Peru, a good ceviche is a mandatory menu item. Served in a square bowl and topped with the traditional red onions, Peruvian large-kerneled corn (choclo), toasted Peruvian corn kernels (for crunch) and a sweet potato puree, chunks of white fish were steeped in marinade of key lime, a bit of garlic, and salt and pepper, the strong citrus acidity authentic and pleasing. I would have liked smaller pieces of fish (my preference is for a Hawaiian poke-style cut), but overall, it was a very good rendition of ceviche.
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Other highlights of the meal included a flaky-crusted empanada filled with a slightly sweet dark-meat mixture, and what will probably be a go-to sandwich on future visits to Sur, the pan con chicharrón (bread with fried pork). Served on a long white plate, the fluffy, lightly toasted round bun was topped with chunks of crisped pork and a tuft of red onions, with slices of sweet potato and lettuce. It was tasty and super-hearty, reminding me of my late-night sandwich runs during my last visit to Lima.
Finally, to the sweets. They're something you'll want to save room for. A Peruvian baker makes the selection of sweets for the restaurant daily, and they are all fantastic. Included among them is the traditional Peruvian ultra-sweet (this is how they make it in Peru) suspiro de limena, a thick, meringue-topped pudding; delicious, exotic cheesecakes (try the passion fruit or the guanabana and lucuma); caramel-filled shortbread alfajores cookies; and the traditional rice pudding topped with purple corn jelly, or arroz con leche con mazamorra morada.
Sur Latin Peruvian occupies the corner space of a nondescript strip mall in Katy. The small restaurant is cozy and casual, boasting an open kitchen with a long counter and barstools, and about a dozen tables that can be arranged to seat parties.
The evening that I was there, I saw couples enjoying a casual meal, and a family party of approximately ten. At one point, the group erupted in song, singing "happy birthday" to a young girl who was smiling shyly. The scene reinforced the warmth of the vibe that had greeted me from the moment I stepped into this small but charming Peruvian strip-mall gem.