Fare Minded

At Rockville's La Limeña, Heart and Soul

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By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2007

Like any Peruvian restaurant worth its salt, La Limeña goes right to the heart of the matter: anticuchos, satay-style grilled tidbits of beef heart with fresh salsa and boiled potatoes. (Here's the kicker: You get to salt your own. This kitchen is careful.) Or perhaps the proverbial way to your heart is through your stomach? Consider the rachi, tender strips of immaculately cleaned tripe, also served with salsa criolla and potatoes.

La Limeña, a new Peruvian/Cuban grill in Rockville, has the plastic tableware and home-style hospitality -- when a friend admired a waitress's earrings, she promptly made her a present of them, saying they were from "home," meaning Peru -- of a mom-and-pop place, but with the attention to detail of a more formal establishment. The counters and floors gleam (in fact, the antiseptic smell of the swabbing mop can be a little disconcerting); the wait staff scurries. Everybody is on their best behavior. The name is emblematic of the attitude: not Mama's, but "the lady from Lima."

Owner Emma Perez, whose pastries are already popular in the area (she supplies the Crisp & Juicy chicken joints), keeps the bakery counter filled with rice pudding, flan, guava pastries and the addictive alfajores, delicate anise-flavored sandwich cookies filled with deep gold leche caramel. The counter to the left displays the choros a la Chalaca, half-shelled mussels under a heap of chopped red onions and tomatoes and corn kernels, drizzled with lime and cilantro; shrimp with roasted red peppers and plantains; and seviche. And running the length of the wall as you walk in are the grill and rotisserie ovens, with deeply glazed chickens resting on gallows and oiled slabs of beef sizzling on the iron ribs. It is such an enticing assortment that it's hard to concentrate on one course.

But start at the beginning, with the mussels, shrimp-stuffed green plantains or a bowl of bisque-like shrimp soup studded with potatoes, rice, corn, a touch of cheese and a poached egg. Perez boasts of the fish's freshness, and the seviche backs her up; the flounder in the all-fish version is impeccable and tender, nicely limey but not overwhelmed, and accompanied by a three-inch slice of corn on the cob and a few sweet-potato fries. The empanadas, shrimp or ground beef, are light and almost dainty. But for sheer comfort food, the papas a la huancaína, a sort of deconstructed potato salad with sliced steamed potatoes and hard-boiled egg under a blanket of chili-spiked cheese sauce, much like hollandaise, is hard to beat.

Don't confuse price with portion size; both the shrimp soup and grilled tripe are appetizers when it comes to budget at $6.95, but the soup is easily enough for two -- more knowledgeable diners order it for the table -- and the tripe a generous portion. The "monster sandwiches" range from $5.25 for the roast pork with spicy mayo to $6.50 for the cubano, which is served on a first-rate crusty baguette, not a spongy sub roll.

To a certain extent, you can differentiate between the Peruvian and Cuban dishes by the starch. Corn and potatoes are two of Peru's great gifts to the world, while the more heavily Spanish-influenced Cuban cuisine emphasizes rice. (And then there's the spaghetti, which in typical Cuban style tends to be boiled pretty much to the cafeteria stage -- definitely kid stuff.) Most of the chicken and beef dishes come with french fries, except for the Cuban-style ropa vieja and the pan-fried bistec de Palomilla, and the fried pork dishes, also a Cuban staple, generally come with rice and beans. (Most nights the beans have been black, although at least once white beans replaced them.) A few dishes, including the very nice grilled trout and the sauteed chicken with tomatoes and red onions, straddle the fence: They come with rice and fries.

The rotisserie chicken is marinated before cooking and is nicely moist. The churrasco, a New York strip, is a generous portion (10 ounces) for $12.95 and comes with fries and rice as well as salad; I guess New York is also somewhere between Cuba and Peru, culinarily speaking. It's not prime, but a more traditionally chewy grade, and could perhaps have been more carefully trimmed of fat and gristle, but it has a good old-fashioned flavor. The bistec a la Limeña, marinated flank steak topped with a fried egg, is even better.

There are still a few glitches in the system. Peruvian steak is usually well-done, and once a request to have it rare was a dismal failure, though the replacement was fine. Occasionally the meat seems oiled more than the grill requires. One customer asked to substitute french fries for yucca (the order receipt clearly read "no yucca"), but the plate came out in the usual fashion.

This is partly because as business has grown, Perez has had to bring in more help. But the routine is taking hold. A liquor license is pending, but in the meantime, try the house-made chicha morada, a sweet drink of purple corn boiled with pineapple, apple, cinnamon and lime. Come the dog days, it's going to be really popular.

Note: La Limeña is not a long walk from the Rockville Metro, but there are busy intersections to navigate.

La Limeña 765-B Rockville Pike (in Ritchie Center), Rockville; Metro: Rockville Phone:301-424-8066 Kitchen hours: Open Monday-Thursday, 11-9, Fridays and Saturdays 11-10, Sundays 10-9 Prices: Appetizers $4.75-$9.95; entrees $7.50-$12.95. Wheelchair access: Good.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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