602 S. Park St., 310-4282
11 am-7 pm Sun., 11 am-9 pm Mon.-Thurs., 11 am-10 pm Fri.-Sat. Entrées $8.95-$14.95. Street parking. Credit cards and checks. Wheelchair access in rear.
Anytime you have to defend Madison's reputation as an urbane place to live (and you will, anywhere outside Wisconsin), it's best to picture the 600 block of South Park Street.
The Edward Hopper-worthy effect of all those bleak storefronts only looks like the Midwest in the depths of the Depression. Behind the brick faades is a whole globe: Yee's Laundry, where they fold your freshly cleaned clothes into delicate, downy blocks; the reliable Vientiane Lao and Thai cuisine restaurant; and a video store specializing in Asian films. And just a block down is the venerable Lane's Bakery, which now makes better black and white cookies than any New York deli.
The recent addition of Inka Heritage adds one more border-hopping note to the strip. The big picture windows look out onto the incessant Park Street traffic, but inside everything is clean, airy and calming. The orange stucco walls and blond wood floors are sunny. The waitstaff is guileless, cheerful and efficient. And the Peruvian menu, which is hard to find anywhere, promises a whole range of new tastes.
A lot of them are good. Start with the ceviche. This isn't a subtle ceviche that's all about understated marinating. The mixed seafood ceviche features shrimp, crab, oysters and squid tossed in a lime broth that's spiked with chili. It will make you pucker, and that's fine.
Also eye-opening are the tamalitos, two fat, doughy wads of ground corn that are as addictive as corn dogs. A huge bowl of chicken soup is as good as your mother's, which means it's very good, and the Parihuela seafood soup, advertised on the menu as "100% aphrodisiac," is good even without the novelty act (no one was boinking on the tables, so if the effect takes hold it's a gradual Viagra).
Among entrées my favorite, and reason enough to return, is the aji de pollo - an almost curry-like dish featuring strips of chicken served in a very creamy sauce of nuts and Parmesan cheese. The effect is dense and buttery and reminiscent, oddly, of a '50s Midwestern Frenchified casserole.
And that's true of some of the other Peruvian dishes, and the reason why some will taste too rich for modern palates. The causa limeña is a beautiful tower of crushed potatoes layered with avocado, chicken and mayonnaise, but that big jolt of mayo is going to put some people off.
If you want something simpler, veer toward the meat dishes, including a fine grilled tenderloin with sautéed mushrooms, and save room for the tres leches cake, which is one of those fail-proof dishes everyone does well. Inka Heritage, though, does it better.