South American food? It isn't all stewed meat, boiled roots and quince paste. Twenty years ago Dover Publications brought out a reprint of a book originally published in 1939 called "The South American Cook Book," by Cora, Rose and Bob Brown. In it one finds Colombian pigeons, Argentine ostrich, West Indian pig's head, black-eyed peas and coconut, grilled red bananas and stuffed parrot.
It discusses umbrella ant queens, for example, or rather, " 'ant roe,' classed as a sea food. When queen tanajuras and sauvas, which are enormous ants, want to form a new colony . . . they grow wings and do not look like ants. . . . The queens, extended with roe until their abdomens are big as Lima beans, are captured in quantities. [They] are first scalded in hot water and drained. Then the abdomens are detached and fried in deep fat until well browned. Seasoned with salt and pepper, these little crisp tidbits taste something like shrimps."
When I saw Puerta del Sol listed as a Peruvian, Spanish, American restaurant, I hoped not for umbrella ant queens, but maybe for stuffed chayote, a squashlike vegetable that's
sometimes in local markets, or even for turkey, since Peru means "turkey" in Portuguese. I thought empanadas, at least, or velvety custards.
What we found felt more Spanish than Peruvian, more American than Spanish. On the menu, "combinacio de solomillo y langosta" means "surf and turf" ($19), and there's also tournedos Rossini ($16). "Honeycomb"? Think tripe ($10), or cow's stomach, a great temptation, but, my two companions argued, not one people pray to read about.
We decided to begin with a plate of mushrooms on toast ($3.75) and bowls of black bean soup and "special fish soup" (both $3). Really, I suppose, we ordered the mushrooms because we had good memories of mushrooms on toast at Tio Pepe. Loving a bargain, we wanted to find at $3.75 those intense fungal flavors in that strong mushroom cream. These, however, were naive, mild mushrooms, sliced, mixed with a light bechamel, and served on toasted, conventionally fluffy white bread. The most emphatic flavor was the broiled egg glaze.
The black bean soup had the glutinous, almost pasty texture of a food processor puree. It included stirred-in rice and chopped onion; I would rather have had a separate heap of white rice and onion over the top of the deep brown soup, for beauty.
The special soup smelled fishy, and yet its tastes were, on the one hand, rich, on the other hand, simple and appealing. Spooning in, we found it contained salmon, whose tastes and oiliness usually preclude anyone's tossing it into the soup pot. While I wasn't converted to using salmon in soup in the future, we enjoyed this encounter with it.
For entrees, we chose one of the evening's specials, baby salmon (($16), and two dishes that purported to be Peruvian, arroz con pollo ($12.25), translated as chicken with rice Peruvian style, and seco de carne ($15), described as Peruvian beef stew. We all liked the baby salmon best. It had been handsomely filleted, head on, skin on, and opened like a book, sides fanned to either side of its spine. The fish was napped by a light wine sauce and scattered with slices of mushrooms, tomatoes and red peppers, with green beans and heated, frozen-tasting peas to the side.
The chicken dish was not disagreeable, but it happened that my companion who ordered it dislikes warmed-over chicken. Puerta's preparation seemed to be a heavily oiled, herbed rice-and-chicken mixture designed to be heated up when someone requested it.
The beef stew, pleasant as it was, wasn't beef stew, but something akin to Swiss steak, that familiar dish of braised beef and vegetables, in this case, red peppers and boiled potato. One of the meal's best features was a mound of fragrant rice, which, together with green peas, was served to the side of the beef.
Spanish traditions have generally meant interesting custards in South America, but the Puerta del Sol's preternaturally bright orange flan ($2.50) was almost tasteless, except for a burned edge. Almond jellyroll cake ($2.50) looked just as orange, and tasted just as flat, except for some crunchy, toasted, shaved almonds over the top. A chocolate jellyroll ($2.50) wrapped artificial whipped cream inside a pale brown, not-at-all-chocolate bready fluff.
People with big appetites will like the generous portions. Puerta's room is large and serviceable. Those with responsive hearts will appreciate the courtesy and attentiveness of the staff. *
Next: Bangkok Delight
Puerta del Sol, 5506 Harford Road, 426-4121
Hours: Lunch Tuesdays to Fridays 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Tuesdays to Thursdays 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., until 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays
Accepts: All major credit cards
Features: Peruvian, Spanish and American cooking
No-smoking section: Yes
Wheelchair access: No