Hearty food with a welcoming atmosphere

EATS

Dining For $25 Or Less

December 20, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,Special to The Sun

Luz Caruajulca, the ever-smiling, always-in-motion owner of El Rinconcito Peruano on the outskirts of Fells Point, likes to offer samples and tastes.

She brought us a small glass of purple chichi morada to try, free of charge, after we asked her what it was, then came back with several ears of purple corn, explaining that the drink was made from the corn.

The beverage, like other offerings at El Rinconcito, tasted familiar, but not. In addition to the corn, it contained cinnamon, lime and pineapple juice, and had little triangles of pineapple floating in the glass. It was sweet but not overly so.

Caruajulca, who hails from Peru, opened her restaurant in April and gave it a name that means "little corner," a fitting choice because El Rinconcito is on a corner and because it is a humble place, casual as a cafeteria and serving a menu of fewer than 10 entrees.

Though there's nothing fancy about El Rinconcito, the restaurant is welcoming, with clean terrazzo floors and simple decorations that look like they came from Peru, including a brightly colored woolen cap and a woven rug with a picture of a llama on it. One wall is also dominated by a crucifix and flickering candles.

When we walked in, a TV in one corner was tuned to Friends, but before long, a customer switched off the sitcom and turned to a Spanish-language station. The point seems to be that all cultures and languages are welcome, and if you're unfamiliar with the food, that's all the better because it means Caruajulca can teach you about it.

During our visit, on a Friday night, many of the more popular dishes had been sold out, including the ceviche ($9.95) and the pork chops ($9.95).

But Caruajulca steered us toward the lomo saltado ($9.95), a stir-fry of tender beef with onions, tomatoes, yellow pepper strips and carrots. The meat and vegetables were mounded over french fries, so the juice flavored the potatoes, creating a soggy but delicious accompaniment. It also came with rice. It was a flavorful and generous meal, marred only because it was served on an ice-cold plate.

The half chicken ($6.95) is accompanied by french fries and a simple salad of shredded iceberg topped with a few cucumber and tomato slices. The chicken, cumin-scented and moist, is cooked on a spit in a gas stove visible from the dining area. It comes with a little tub of green sauce that delivers a big blast of spicy heat.

El Rinconcito doesn't serve appetizers, but when diners sit down, they are given a small bowl of hot, addictively crunchy cancha, white corn kernels that are fried in oil and then liberally salted.

It also doesn't have a liquor license -- yet -- but makes up for that as best it can by offering unusual, made-on-the-premises drinks, like the chichi morada or passion fruit punch ($2 a glass or $5 a pitcher), as well as smoothies in tropical flavors like mango, guava and papaya ($2.95).

Desserts aren't listed on the menu but often include homemade ice creams. We tried two. One boasted a rich caramel flavor, and the other tasted of coconut. Both were complex and mild and very, very good. They were also cheap -- we paid $2.95 for both. We were sorry that flan was sold out during our visit.

Baltimore does not have many restaurants serving Peruvian food. But even if it did, El Rinconcito would be worth a visit. You'll feel welcome when you walk in and sated by the hearty, simple fare when you walk out.

El Rinconcito Peruano

Where:

1801 E. Lombard St.

Call:

410-276-2036

Open:

11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Credit cards:

MC, V

Prices:

Entrees: $3.95-$13.50

Food:

*** (3 stars)

Service:

*** (3 stars)

Atmosphere:

**1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

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