San Jose Mercury News Section -Feb 15, 1998
San Jose Mercury News Section -May 16-22, 1997
Metro Newspaper March 28-April 3, 1996
Staying connected to good friends through good food
Catching up on life's joys and sorrowsSan Jose Mercury News Section
A common thread among many cultures is that the joys and sorrows of life are best shared over food. At least, that was the theory I was sharing with my friend, Olga Enciso Smith, as we had lunch at Inca Gardens one rainy noon. People were blowing down East San Fernando Street at the end of their umbrellas, but we were comfortably ensconced at a window table, drinking something very purple.
As the long-time proprietor of Machu Picchu Folk Art Gallery of the Americas, Olga has been a cultural maven in downtown San Jose for years. That's why I was speaking about cultural theory. I figured she would like it.
"That's true," she said, pleasantly. "To me, it's very important to enjoy and connect."
Which provided just the opening I was looking for.
"Olga," I said, "what is this stuff?"
It was quite delicious and non-alcoholic, but I hadn't seen any thing so purple since I stopped drinking Boone's Farm back in college.
"Chicha morada," she said. "It is the beverage the Incas made from purple corn. That's what we drank before Coke. Also, before Christ."
Olga's son, Brian, the assistant manager at Inca Gardens, brought a bowl of cancha, large, individually-roasted kernels of corn. It's what the Incas ate before popcorn?
"Yes, the precursor to popcorn," she said.
The restaurant, a venture Olga started with partner Marco Rondón, just celebrated its second anniversary and, like Machu Picchu gallery, adds a dimension of Peruvian and South American culture downtown. I can recommend everything I tasted, but this isn't a restaurant review. It is a catching up.
I first met the Smith family through Carman, Olga's husband, Brian's dad. In the grim days following the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, I learned that there was a survivor of the collapse of Oakland's Cypress Structure at the San Jose Medical Center. Carman had suffered a broken back as his pickup truck went down in the wreckage, and it was a hellacious story he survived to tell.
Through the years we've kept up, particularly when it came to some anniversary or news event pertaining to the earthquake.
Then last November, Carman underwent a desperate surgery for correction of an aortic aneurysm, which his doctors believe can be traced to the impact he suffered in 1989.
"I almost croaked," he said by telephone. "That's what they tell me."
"He is just now, finally, starting to get better," Olga said. "But he's already talking about taking his friends to Machu Picchu."
Not the gallery on South First Street, the Inca citadel in the Andes. "Carman's gradual recovery has allowed the family to return somewhat to normal," Olga said. In her case, that means advocacy for her culture and for downtown, particularly the small retailers.
"What she does is so important," said Yolanda Serrano-Carrilla, a medical administrator who volunteers at Machu Picchu gallery. "She is preserving the culture that belongs to many children in this valley."
Olga, who first came to the United States from Peru in 1963 on a Junior Red Cross tour, considers culture an absolute necessity. "Lose your culture, lose your soul," she said. "I am a fighter - stubborn, persistent, and I think a little crazy."
For San Jose, it's a good kind of crazy.
Catching up. Family news. Joys and Sorrows. Did I mention these are things best shared over food?
San Jose Mercury News Section
February 15, 1998
The heights of Peruvian cuisine
San Jose Mercury News Eye Section
May 16-22, 1997
PERU SEEMS to jump to consciousness on two levels: terrorists and tourists, Tupac Amaru and Machu Picchu, trouble and expense. This is a shame, because at another level Peru is deliciously accessible. As befits the country's spectacular geography, its cuisine marches proudly from sea to rain forest to mountaintop. Inca Gardens opened a bit over a year ago, in the place of a Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant on one of the loveliest tree-lined comercial blocks of downtown San Jose, East San Fernando between Second and Third. It was a harmonic convergence from the start. Olga Enciso Smith, proprietor of the Machu Picchu art gallery around the corner, was looking for an egg roll, while Marco Rondón of Andiamo Pizza was looking to open a Mexican restaurant. Rondón's parents are Nicaraguan and Peruvian, but he was thinking of going with a more broadly familiar cuisine. Enciso Smith, blocked on her egg roll hunt because the Chinese restaurant was folding, instead bought the furnishings. And she talked her friend Rondón into trying Peruvian. Down to bricks Rondón brought his mother out of culinary retirement in Miami, and she trained the current chef. Enciso Smith oversaw the stripping of walls down to the exposed brick, setting down a terra-cotta floor and bringing in potted trees and Peruvian paintings, fold leaf mirrors and painted glass from her gallery. The dining room seats only 42; tables are well-spaced and the room is light and high-ceilinged. You can have a private conversation at lunch. There is also a small banquet room. Service is friendly, though not always completely efficient. We were brought drinks after a food bit of looking around. Try chicha morada ($1.50), a cold tea-like extract of purple corn, sweetened with pineapple, sugar and cinnamon, that's very refreshing on a hot day. With this we got fresh-roasted corn nuts, an Incan snack. We waited again. And then came ceviche (de mariscos, $7.90). Peru invented ceviche, and this is a sublime rendition. Our heads were turned by calamari, prawns and luscious chunks of red snapper marinated in the juice of thin-skinned Peruvian limes, and thin-sliced rings of marinated red onion. It is served with a small bowl of Peruvian hot pepper sauce, and two cooling agents: cold sweet potato and corn on the cob. Take a bite of acidity from the sea, temper with one or both Inca mountain vegetables, experience underlying levels of flavor in the hot chile sauce. Heavenly seafood From here, we could have gone in the many directions and altitudes Peruvian cuisine will take you. To grilled steak, rotisserie chicken, stewed pork, fried rice. We stuck at sea level, and were amply rewarded. Sopon 7 Mares ($10.90) is one gigantic bowl of fresh seafood wafting heavenward in an herb, spice and vegetable-besotted broth. A paste of green spices and herbs gives you: ah, cilantro. Ah, mint. Garlic, onion, green bell pepper, carrot, peas, and shrimp, calamari, snapper, crab, mussels. Peruvian long-grain white rice in the soup soaks up all these flavors. Camarones ajillos ($13.95) was something entirely different and wonderful. A Mound of steamed rice, framed by long-cut roasted russet potatoes, is set next to a bowl with eight jumbo shrimp prostrating themselves over the edge. As well they should, because the sauce in the bowl is a delicious melange of white wine and roasted, lightly sautéed garlic. This, as most of the menu, comes from Rondón's dear mother. We finished with Colombian coffee and rice pudding ($2.50), a cool soup sprinkled with cinnamon. Among other house-made desserts are fried bananas ($3). Inca Gardens * * * • Where: 87 E. San Fernando St. • Hours: Mon. 11:30am - 3pm, Tues. - Fri. 11:30am - 3pm & 5 - 9pm, Sat. 1 - 9pm and Sun. 1 - 8pm • Information: (408) 977-0816 • Et cetera: Beer and wine. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards.
San Jose Mercury News Eye Section
May 16-22, 1997
New restaurant provides intriguingly seasoned
comfort food fit for an Inca god
March 28-April 3, 1996
SOME WORDS carry more magic than others. "Inca" is one of those, conjuring up fabulous lost cities high in the Andes, Yma Sumac, the potato. And now we can add Inca Gardens, a gleaming new incarnation of a hole-in-the-wall eatery wedged between downtown and San Jose State University.
So appealing is this restaurant, awash with white walls and tables and festooned with colorful textiles and posters, that it was already packed when we arrived last week for lunch. Our fellow travelers included lots of Spanish-speakers clearly overjoyed with the South American menu. The best news, from my point of view, was that the fare didn't make concessions to North American tastes. This is an authentic listing of ceviches, papa (potato) dishes and spiced steaks.
Lunch served two needs: sampling the new downtown San Jose restaurant, and providing a chance to talk over old times with a terrific guy I hadn't seen for years. All of this called for bottles of Cristal, a Peruvian pilsner-style brew ($3), as well as a glass of a delicious beverage called chicha morada ($1.25) that resembled a tangy mix of ginger, hibiscus and root beer. Both tasted great with a plate of chile-roasted pine nuts.
Gabbing so much that our server was forced to return three times until we were ready to order, we finally agreed on a few starters. Instead of ceviche, we headed straight toward papa rellena, a stuffed potato creation served with a zippy salsa ($3.49). And since chowders are another Peruvian favorite, we had to go with a chupe de camarones ($6.75). Eventually we ordered entrees of the famous Peruvian fried rice, arroz chaufa ($4.99), and an order of the house roasted chicken, pollo a la brasa ($6 for a half chicken).
Bear in mind that, Incas aside, Peru is in many ways a melting-pot culture, whose culinary influences range from Asian to Creole. Just ordering these dishes with musical names was fun, and the friendly staffers were patient.
To add firepower to the mild food, a side dish of green chile salsa lay in wait. We found it hotter than hell, but so addictive that we just mopped our brows and began adding it to everything.
Meanwhile, the chowder, a milky broth delicately flavored with scallions, tomatoes and lots of cilantro, met with approval, though not wild applause. I had been expecting something thicker, packed with potatoes and corn. It was a modest soup, with only two prawns to call its owe.
Next came a huge platter generously mounded with what looked like classic fried rice. Only it was better, richer, fuller-bodied. Eggs had been scrambled into this ham and cilantro-infused rice and the effect was irresistible. We could have walked in, shared this one dish and walked away satisfied. But there was one more item to check out, an entire half chicken served with a pool of luscious white beans. The chicken was moist and succulent - bit the beans were extraordinary.
I detected a vinegar finish to the slow-cooked beans; their own earthy flavor had been subtly enhanced by touches of cumin and cinnamon. In the center of the flavors blazed an inner heat. The balance was amazing. We even stopped lying about the good old days long enough to toast this dish, and just how much fun dining at Inca Gardens had been. (By the way, Ben, you looked great.)
March 28-April 3, 1996