For the fifth straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com, presented by Concordia University. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2011."
Nearly 4,000 miles separate National Avenue and Peru, but for the last few months the long thoroughfare that cuts through Milwaukee's South Side and several western suburbs has acquired a Peruvian taste. Two new restaurants featuring the cuisine of that country have opened on National in West Allis and Milwaukee.
Peruvian-born entrepreneur Felix Barrientos, who has business interests in Chicago and Milwaukee, was the first to begin serving his native nation's food. He bought Big Al's, a modest neighborhood diner with an American menu, in February and slowly introduced Peruvian dishes into the restaurant. Now called La Parihuela, it is located at 9039 W. National Ave.
A few miles away, a 19-year-old spring graduate of New Berlin West High School opened Mr. Sebass, a 20-seat Peruvian cafe at 3427 W. National Ave., on Sept. 15. The restaurant's name is a play on the owner's name, Sebastian Ludena, who was born in Peru and moved to the U.S. with his family when he was 9. His friends call him Sebas.
Charming and gutsy, Ludena is drawing on dining industry knowledge he acquired during the two years he spent working full time at McDonald's while going to high school full time. He is being mentored by and receiving services from the Multicultural Entrepreneurial Institute.
The two new restaurants, the only Peruvian eateries in the area, have an intriguing connection. Ludena hired Barrientos' cousin, Hilda Quiroz, to be the chef at Mr. Sebass. She is well known in Milwaukee's small Peruvian community for her cooking skills.
Barrientos retained a high profile chef, Maritza Paz of Madison, to develop La Pariheula's menu and train its kitchen staff. A member of a well-known family of chefs in Peru, Paz cooked for Peruvian presidents and was a chef and restaurant consultant in Florida before moving to Madison, where she has been an advisor to three restaurants – El Corral, Inka Heritage and Pollo Inka.
Paz also operates a catering business in Madison and is planning to open her own restaurant there.
"I have had the idea of owning a restaurant in my mind for a long time," Barrientos recently said while sitting on a stool at La Parihuela's counter. "All my life, I'm a cable guy, but my dream has been to have a Peruvian restaurant in Wisconsin."
Barrientos has been involved with cable television sales and service.
La Parihuela remains something of a neighborhood restaurant, serving American style breakfasts daily from 6 to 11 a.m., and the owner is adding a few Mexican dishes to the menu. But under Paz's culinary guidance, the diner is unmistakably Peruvian.
The smaller Mr. Sebass, which is the more attractively decorated of the two cafes, reflects Ludena's dream of owning his own business. He financed the venture with savings from his McDonald' employment and the sale of family real estate in Peru.
Accustomed to working long hours, he has a day job delivering liquor that begins at 6 a.m. The restaurant stays open late – until 10 p.m Tuesday through Thursday and on Sunday, and midnight on Friday and Saturday.
Ludena waits tables, and his father, Juan, and sister, Silvia, pitch in when needed. Open for lunch and dinner every day except Monday, Mr. Sebass serves typically Peruvian hot ($6.50) and cold ($4.50) sandwiches filled with a variety of meats and hard boiled egg. Appetizers, soups, entrees and desserts are also offered.
The two restaurants have similar dinner menus and prices, and they feature two Peruvian staples, ceviche and rotisserie chicken. Each chef has her own recipe and personal touches for the classic dishes.
Starches are prominent on Peruvian plates. It is common for rice and french fries to be served with an entree.
Paz explains that her country's palate has been heavily influenced by the cuisines of other countries. Steak and chicken is often accompanied by spaghetti in a uniquely Peruvian milk-based pesto sauce.
The popular lomo saltado, featuring strips of beef tenderloin or sirloin, is prepared with a Japanese-style marinade and stir fried. Aji de gallina, a chicken dish, traces its roots to France.
Most entrees at both restaurants are $8 to $10. La Parihuela also offers a Peruvian paella ($14). Unlike the Spanish version, it contains only seafood and includes cilantro in the recipe.
Lomo Inka ($16), a dish created by Paz, is grilled beef tenderloin and fried sweet plantain stuffed into a rice and bean pancake, and topped with an onion sauce.
Inca Kola, a Peruvian soft drink that tastes like liquid bubble gum, is available by the can at both restaurants, as is a selection of fresh juices. Each chef brews chicha morada, a piquant Andean non-alcoholic drink made with deep purple corn, pineapple, cinnamon, fig leaf, fresh lime and a little sugar.
"The Incas drank it to relieve high blood pressure," Paz says. It also relieves taste bud boredom. Guaranteed to produce a wow in your mouth.
Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.
During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.
Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.