Machu Picchu 8200 Piney Branch Rd., Silver Spring 587-8663 Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: Most dinner entrees about $6. Credit cards: None.
In most cheap neighborhood restaurants, one expects to make allowances for the food. After all, if the price is low enough, it doesn't have to be outstanding.
But at Machu Picchu, a budget-priced Peruvian place, the food needs no apologies. It's terrific. Combine that with rock-bottom prices and you've got a real find here.
Don't expect many amenities at Machu Picchu. Although there's a cloth, a candle and a plastic flower on each table, this is essentially a bare-bones restaurant, a place to concentrate on the food rather than the surroundings.
Start with the wonderful papa a la huancaina, a Peruvian cold potato appetizer with a silky, subtly hot sauce that makes most potato salads taste like duds.
Or the equally irresistible escabeche de pescado, a big platter of fresh, firm whitefish cooked in vinegar, garlic, cumin and pepper and covered with a mound of sweet onion and hard-boiled egg.
The ceviche, made with good fish marinated in lemon juice, is pleasant but no match for the escabeche.
Or try the chewy but delicious anticucho, morsels of beef heart marinated in a vinegar-oil-garlic-spice mixture and served with excellent fried potatoes.
The fish and shrimp soups are marvelous, actually old-fashioned seafood stews.
They're made with fresh fish and shrimp, rice, potato, a whole cooked egg, milk and spices, their broths rich, velvety combinations of hot and mild flavors.
The beef soup is good, too, but far less interesting.
Possibly the best entree in the house is the pollo cazuela, an immensely lovable dish in which tender, moist chicken is cooked slowly with sausage, ham, green pepper, peas and onion in a delightful, wine-like sauce that soaks up the flavors of the meats. Another first-class chicken dish is aji de gallina, chunks of chicken in a pleasingly homey, mild sauce of rich chicken broth flavored with nuts, spices and milk. It's like the filling from a first-class chicken pot pie.
Another winner is lechon asado, a big portion of excellent roast pork with roasted potatoes and rice, topped with minced garlic, and in a simple, meaty sauce. Arroz con pato, rice with duck, is a first-class dish, too, but understand that it's mainly rice (in a smashing coriander-flavored sauce), with a little succulent duck for flavor.
Expect the beef here to be beautifully marinated and spiced, but at these prices, prepare for a bit of chewing. In lomo saltado, reminiscent of a Chinese stir-fried dish, thin strips of beef are sauteed with strips of onion, green pepper and remarkably good fried potatoes, and in anticucho a la jardinera, beef cubes are combined with the same vegetables on skewers.
Pescado frito, fried fish, is fresh and well prepared, but it can't match the dishes with sauces.
Desserts? Look for the good, dense flan and the alfajores, fragile, buttery, wafer-thin cookies with a sweet filling.