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Tuber-Mensch

Potatoes are a staple of Peruvian cuisine, and you can wash them down with Inca Kola.

Inka Grill, 260 Bristol St., Costa Mesa; (714) 444-4562. Also in Lake Forest, Cypress and Huntington Beach.

October 07, 2000|DAVID LANSING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like most people, we subscribe to, oh, I don't know, maybe 500 or 600 magazines. Actually, I subscribe to two and Jan subscribes to the rest. She doesn't read them. She collects them. By her bed, on the coffee table, in the bathroom, next to the cat's food bowl, on top of the TV.

Last week I was tossing out some of these periodicals when Jan grabbed my hand and said, "What are you doing? I haven't read that one yet."

Well, of course she hadn't. Nor had she read any of the last two years' worth of New Yorkers stacked like cordwood next to the fireplace. Nonetheless, the magazine in my hand, which had something to do with advertising and marketing (always a fascinating subject) was dated July 16, 1997.

Didn't matter. She still hadn't read it yet. So I made a deal with her. Read it over the weekend or I was going to toss it. Fine, she said. She brought it out to the garden and propped it open in front of her while, on her hands and knees, she planted sweet peas. Read a paragraph, plant a seed, read a paragraph, plant a seed.

"Listen to this," she said, holding a trowel in one hand and the magazine in the other. "Inca Kola is more popular than Coca-Cola in Lima, Peru. The fruity, sweet soft drink is an excellent complement to spicy cuisines from South America and Mexico and has the Atlanta-based corporate giant considering a buyout."

She put down the magazine, wiped her dirty hands on her shorts and said, "Have you ever had an Inca Kola?"

Well, no.

"Don't you think we should try it?"

Which is how we end up, later that evening, at the Inka Grill, a small chain of Peruvian eateries founded by Ana Montoya-Ives. Let me tell you what I know about Peruvian food: potatoes.

You may think of Idaho or Ireland when you think of potatoes, but spuds were practically invented in Peru. See, I don't remember learning anything in college, and the only thing I recall about high school was the three different types of rocks, but I have almost total recall when it comes to the history of the potato because of a paper I wrote for Mrs. Hamm in sixth grade. It's very sad, I know, but I really got into potatoes. I wish I still had that paper, that's how good it was.

What I remember is that native Peruvians were eating potatoes even before the Incas were around. Like 6,000 years ago or something. Then the Spaniards showed up, brought a few moldy spuds back to Europe, the Germans started cultivating them, and eventually the English and Irish picked up on the whole thing.

There's a lot more I remember about potatoes, but I'm getting off track. (OK, just this last thing: The hyper-imaginative English actually banned the potato while the rest of Europe was cultivating it because they were positive the ugly little tuber transmitted leprosy. Aren't you glad you know that?)

But let's get back to the Inka Grill. I don't know why, but I am attracted to menus that make absolutely no sense. Maybe it's the challenge. I mean, deciding between grilled salmon and a rib eye is easy, but how to choose between jalea and parihuela? Sure I could just go for the bisteck or ensalada de pollo, but that would be cheating. I'd only order them because I know what they are. But talla giorgio? Aji de gallina? What fun!

While we are trying to decipher the menu (Jan cheats and actually reads the descriptions of the dishes), our waiter brings by a little glass saucer of green, parsley-tasting chile sauce that he tells us is aji and asks us if we want something to drink.

OK, now I know that aji de gallina is going to be a chile sauce on a gallina, but I still have no idea what gallinas are. Some sort of pork dish maybe? I do remember something about South Americans--Peruvians?--having a special dish made from roasted hamsters in which the head and feet are left on. Could that be gallina?

"Excuse me," I say to the waiter. "You don't happen to know what the Peruvian word is for hamster, do you?"

He laughs. "Cuy," he says, and then adds, "don't worry. It's not on the menu. And they're guinea pigs, not hamsters."

Yeah, well, fine, great, whatever. I just really wasn't in the mood for fresh hamster tonight.

We order two Inca Kolas. Jan sips, makes little smacking noises like a dog trying to get peanut butter off the roof of its mouth. I take a sip.

"Bubble gum," Jan says.

"More like Juicy Fruit," I say.

When the waiter comes back, Jan asks for a chardonnay. I switch to chicha morada, which is purple corn punch. It needs a shot of rum in it or something, but otherwise it is great. Much nicer than the Wrigley-flavored cola.

All right, I'll admit it. I finally break down and read the descriptions of the dishes. For some odd reason about half of the house specialties contain Icelandic cod. Hmmmm. There's jalea, which combines the cod with shrimp and calamari; and there's jugos, which is cod in a tomato broth; and there is talla giorgio, which seems to be spaghetti cod.

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