Peru to you
Authentic Peruvian dining in Corning
Here’s today’s travel deal: a trip to Peru for around $14. And the trip will take you only 35 minutes. Just drive to Condor Marka (“Condor City”), the Peruvian restaurant in Corning.
Coming from Chico, drive almost through town on the main drag and look for the Daily Special sandwich board on the right-hand sidewalk. Inside, the atmosphere is as Peruvian as a Corning commercial space will allow: Peruvian music, Peruvian folklórico videos playing, Peruvian costumes and carvings on the walls.
You will be welcomed by either Milenka Vargas, who on a slow day is the entire staff, or on a busy day by her husband, Davis, the only other employee. In lieu of a menu, your server will hand you an iPad on which you scroll to view the items, which are clearly pictured, seemingly endless, intriguing, clearly described, and as far from our familiar Mexican fare as one can imagine: cau cau (tripe in vegetables), caihua rellena (stuffed Peruvian pepper), antichucho (beef heart), causa Limeña (mashed potato slices with vegetable/avocado mix between), estofado de lengua (cow tongue stew).
Order without fear. Everything I’ve tried has been flavorful, interesting without being weird, and lively without being distractingly hot. There are noodle dishes, stews, stuffed vegetables, fish dishes and rice dishes, but Peru’s first love is the papa, and I encourage you to gravitate toward anything with a potato base (like the papa rellena, where the potato takes the place of the more familiar bell pepper). The Vargases take their ingredients seriously and go to the trouble and expense of importing them from Peru whenever possible, so their potato dishes all use papas Peruanos, which are as unlike the American Idaho as Parmigiano-Reggiano is unlike Kraft American Singles.
Two words of warning. One, like all mom-and-pop food operations, Condor Marka is slow, since the kitchen staff totals one person. The Vargases encourage the impatient to call in orders ahead of time, but I encourage you to stop hurrying and enjoy the lentitud. Two, the food isn’t remarkably cheap. This isn’t a taco truck. Shipping ingredients from Peru costs money. There are less pricy dishes, but expect to pay $13-$16 for your entrée. It’s worth it.
Whatever you order, it will come with three beautiful, tiny bowls containing chili sauces—mild, medium and hot—which are piquant with fascinating flavors but not so hot as to obliterate the taste.
The drink menu offers two beers, one wine, one “kola,” and two juices, all Peruvian. For me the most interesting is the chicha morada, a fruit juice made from purple corn, cinnamon and clove. But looking ahead, one interesting dessert is mazamorra morada, a loose pudding made from the same purple corn juice with fruit bits mixed in. They taste almost the same, so I would go with one or the other but not both. No worries: The dessert menu is short but rich in good options. Besides the mazamorra, there is an ice cream made with lucuma, a fruit that grows only in Peru and Ecuador, and alfajores, Peruvian cookies made of two crispy shortbread wafers with an interesting caramel filling between. Do not leave the building without trying one.
Most of the dishes are more of one flavor than a person wants to eat, so try to bring two or three friends and share dishes. And any trip to a foreign country is about the people, so don’t just order and eat—talk to the Vargases. They are pleasant, interesting folks who are living the classic ethnic restaurant story (Davis: “My wife was a great cook, so I said one day, ‘Why not open a restaurant?’”). When I walked in after an absence of at least a year, Milenka said, “Good to see you again!”