Even the pepper sauce survived move
SOMERVILLE -- It's always worrisome when a small restaurant moves into a bigger space and upgrades from cheap plastic menus to fancy leatherbound ones. It's just never the same. The intimacy disappears, prices go up, and strange new people keep barging into the neighborhood to check it out.
So when we saw that Machu Picchu in Union Square had moved to a larger location in November, we got nervous. Would it still have the spicy rocoto pepper sauce that we took home in tiny plastic containers and hoarded for days on end to spread on sandwiches and fried potatoes? Would there still be sinfully creamy canary beans and thick, firm fried fish bursting with flavor?
Granted, the Peruvian restaurant didn't go far -- just a half-block -- but the difference is huge. Owner Rosy Cerna , a native of Peru who also fills in as hostess, waitress, and cook, took out a second mortgage on her house to double the seating capacity to about 60, upgrade from beer and wine to a full liquor license, and bring in musicians on Friday nights, a DJ on Saturday nights, and dancers a few times a month.
So far, her risk seems to be paying off. We've been to the new spot twice on crowded Friday nights, and maybe next time we'll learn to make a reservation. Luckily there's a bar to wait at and a giant light-box photo of the real Machu Picchu to contemplate while you sit there. And, even better, there are frothy pisco sours to drink.
The front room is set up almost like a cafeteria, with rows of long tables lined up end to end, but the men in ponchos playing Peruvian tunes on guitar, pan flute, and recorder help erase stray thoughts about school lunch. We were seated in a smaller room tucked off to the side and were happy to find that the music was piped in -- especially on our second visit when Inca Son was playing "Stairway to Heaven" and "Dancing Queen" on the pan pipes.
The waiter brought us little dishes of the beloved rocoto pepper sauce and milder jalapeno sauce with a few toasted corn kernels, which made us crave even more corn. So we ordered choclo peruano con queso, a large -kerneled cob of corn served with blocks of soft, mild cheese that didn't seem exciting at first but turned out to be surprisingly satisfying. There was also corn in the fish ceviche -- one of six varieties of ceviche on the menu -- a simple, citrusy mixture with solid chunks of fish, onion, and thick slices of sweet potato.
The aguadito de pollo , a chicken soup known to Peruvians as "levanta muertos, " or dish to raise the dead, might not have stirred us from our graves, but we didn't mind -- especially after stirring in a few spoonfuls of jalapeno sauce.
We tore into the seco de carne a la Norteña, an old family recipe of marinated beef with cilantro served bone-in alongside beans, rice, and a pile of citrusy onions. And we couldn't get enough of the pescado a la Chorrillana , a thick, salty piece of grilled fish, named for the fishing village it originated in, that's served in a creamy tomato and onion sauce alongside flat, golden-fried pieces of potato.
And the fried haddock? Even better than we remembered. So dense, so amazingly free of grease. And the canary beans were just as divine as before. We were certain they were loaded with lard, but Cerna told us no -- just a little oil, some fried onions, and oregano. Praise the chef and pass the beans.
Yes, the price of the seafood has gone up, but less than a dollar a dish, so we're happy to pay it. And yes, the restaurant is more crowded. But the flavors are as still unexpected and delicious, and the staff is as gracious and helpful as ever.
And now, if you're lucky, you can hear "Dancing Queen" played on the pan pipes.
Machu Picchu, 307 Somerville Ave. , Somerville, 617-623-7171 . machupicchuboston.com . Entrees $9.99-$18.99. Wine by the glass, $7-$10.