The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2019 Fall Dining Guide.
It’s possible to be in two places at once. Doubt me? You haven’t eaten at the lively, family-run Rockville storefront whose menu offers the cooking of Cuba and Peru. You’ll crave chicken before you’ve even been seated, having been teased by the flock on display near the glass-fronted entrance. Rubbed with cumin and garlic and charcoal grilled, the chicken is a mash note to Lima, even more so in the company of yucca fried so the outside is crisp and the center fluffy. Havana is nicely represented by winy, tomato-sweetened shredded beef, a classic ropa vieja served in an edible basket of plantain slices.
The black beans could use more oomph, and tilapia isn’t my first choice for tiradito, a cross between sashimi and ceviche amped up here with pureed celery, shrimp and hot sauce and subdued with sweet potato cooked in orange juice. But the scores outnumber the slips. Picture frothy pisco sours; croquettes made luscious with chicken, cilantro and rice; and spirited rice pudding, swirled with port-swollen raisins. The young servers couldn’t be more vigilant. Nod when they drop by, armed with squirt bottles, if you want more (wild) green or (mild) yellow chile sauce — flavor boosters that will turn you into a Peruvian fan if you weren’t already.
La Limena: 765 Rockville Pike, Rockville. 301-424-2733. www.lalimenarestaurant.com .
Open: Dinner and lunch daily.
Price: Dinner mains $9-$21.
Sound check: 75 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The following review was originally published on Sept. 1, 2017.
La Limena Grill doubles your Peruvian pleasure
Restaurateur Emma Perez knew she had a problem with La Limena in Rockville: not enough space for the many fans of her Peruvian-Cuban menu. “It’s too cramped,” she says of the 60-seat, decade-old storefront. Lines for tables were long. Chairs constantly knocked into each other.
It took her a few years, but Perez thinks she has solved the issue by opening a second location, also in Rockville. It goes by the name of La Limena Grill, it’s got more than double the number of seats, and it sticks to a single cuisine: Peruvian, the food Perez, a native of Lima, grew up on and knows best.
Regulars of her first place might miss seeing ropa vieja, Cuba’s national dish of winey shredded beef. But the owner is happy to introduce them to the many new dishes at the expansive grill. They include leche de tigre, bits of tilapia, lime juice, onions and chiles served in a martini glass with a couple strips of fried plantain waving from the rim. “A hangover cure as well as an aphrodisiac,” the menu says of the ceviche that goes down like a gazpacho on fire.
More of a comfort is pastel de choclo con carne, a “pie” of corn layered over steak tips and presented in a small red casserole. Or (testing your carb limits) a stew of squash, potatoes and corn ringed in shrimp. A temperate way to try lomo saltado and aji de gallina is to order the classic Peruvian entrees as fried pastry flutes: a munch of beef with onions and chicken with aji pepper sauce, respectively.
Along with something more spacious, Perez wanted something a bit fancier than her original outpost. The grill is spread across two dining rooms set apart with archways and metal curlicues. Gold-framed mirrors and handsome light fixtures lend additional dressiness. The causa sampler, a quartet of slender mashed potato cakes, looks right at home in the space. Each little tower is set off with a pinch of delicious salad: creamy tuna, chicken, crab or shrimp.
The kitchen, under the watch of Jesus Huapaya, a veteran of La Limena, is still settling in. Meat entrees are not among the early draws. Both a brick of pork belly and a baked Cornish hen arrived dry. A little salvation comes by way of velvety green and yellow chile sauces — and, truth be told, a textbook pisco sour.
Perez is justifiably proud of her desserts. If you’re tagged as a first-timer of the restaurant, a meal ends with gratis button-size alfajores, anise cookies sandwiched with light caramel. Seven bucks buys you a mousse whipped up with lucuma, a fruit indigenous to Peru and suggestive of maple. Either ending sends you out on a contented sigh.