A hole-in-the-wall Peruvian cafe doesn't look like the next big thing, but it's still the spot in the New Orleans area to sample a poly-ethnic cuisine that has foodies across the country buzzing.
You may have noticed the growing ethnic diversity among New Orleans-area restaurants. Sometimes these new dining options arrive with hip stylings, themed décor, helpful tips and translations on the menu and a full-on social media campaign urging us to try something new.
And other times, you find them quietly cooking up in a storm in a stripmall on a Kenner side street, which is the case for Las Carnitas, an utterly unassuming restaurant that serves the traditional food of Peru and has gotten me as excited as I’ve been for any hole-in-the-café in a long time.
Peruvian cooking has been the darling of culinary trend watchers for years now, with many singing its cross-cultural praises and hailing its imminent rise in the American culinary scene. Soon, they predict, American foodies will be as fluent in Peruvian staples like lomo saltado and tallarin verde as they are in Korean barbecue, tapas and banh mi.
But nothing about Las Carnitas seems to promise the next big thing. It’s a tiny place, dwarfed by a taqueria on one side and a liquor store on the other. Even its name is an out-of-date holdover from the previous restaurant at this address. You won’t find carnitas, a type of chopped roasted pork, at this Las Carnitas.
Instead, what I found at one meal after the next was persuasive illumination for why Peruvian cuisine should inspire such excitement. It’s in the distinctive but readily-accessible blend of Asian, European and native Andean mountain influences and the energy of a cuisine that embraces both the ancient and the contemporary on its plates.
This place is short on creature comforts, but what makes Las Carnitas worth a cross-town visit are Peruvian standards like causa rellena, a sculpted cylinder of whipped, golden potatoes striped with a seam of chicken salad and avocado; or that lomo saltado, a Chinese/Spanish stir fry with steak and a dark, salty gravy wetting down a pile of fries.
Citrus coats big hunks of raw fish for a textbook ceviche that is generous, intense, beautiful and garnished with roasted, oversized corn kernels that look like they were seconds away from popping in the kettle. Order the tallarin verde and you get a thin, square steak resting over the main event — a tangle of spaghetti with thick, garlicky pesto and roasted potato.
Peru is home to some 3,000 potato varieties, so the native tuber is always close by at Las Carnitas. But rice is big too. Chaufa is a direct relation to Chinese restaurant fried rice, while for arroz tapado rice is molded in a tight dome around a chili-like mix of beef and onions.
A handful of bare tables are squeezed between the drink fridges and the service counter, and most are filled with guys in soccer jerseys getting a workday lunch or ladies in yoga wear waiting for take-out orders. Everyone is speaking Spanish, and if you don’t there is often a language barrier issue. Also beware of the unusual hours — there’s no dinner Friday, it’s closed Saturday. If you want something stronger than soda you’re out of luck here — Las Carnitas doesn’t serve any alcohol. But then, exploring the flavors at this off the radar find has a kick all its own.
2721 Roosevelt Blvd., Kenner, 504-469-1028