Eating on the Brink 

Vast space, small clientele: A Richmond Peruvian restaurant struggles to survive.

Sofia Manay looks troubled. Her enormous restaurant is empty tonight, just like last night. It'll probably be empty tomorrow night. She's put a sandwich board out front that reads NOW OPEN. But tonight none of the cars strafing Richmond's 23rd Street stops at Plaza Garibaldi. Manay, who's Peruvian, has a new Peruvian cook, and local Peruvian expats tell her everything tastes just like home. But the Mexican food isn't moving either. What can she do but try to survive by booking weekend parties?

On a Thursday night, Plaza Garibaldi feels like a party dissed. The vast room is more nightclub than restaurant. The first owner named the place for the square in Mexico City where mariachis hang out; he even had the exterior painted to resemble it. But the mariachis are absent, and there's nothing on Plaza Garibaldi's stage these days but a dark big-screen TV. Norteño polkas and Mexican pop ricochet off the walls, the immaculate tile floor, and glass-topped tables — nobody's here to absorb the sound.

That's a shame. Because while some of Manay's Peruvian dishes miss big, others are delicious. And in an area starved for Peruvian cuisine, on a street that feels almost fatally beat down, Manay — who used to run a taco stand on Rumrill, and who bought Plaza Garibaldi two years ago — deserves props for taking a risk with the food she loves. Even if she's hedging her bets by offering burritos and enchilada combos as well.

Taste the ceviche mixto, and you wonder why foodie insiders aren't dragging their friends here. One night it was a heaped oval platter packed with shaggy cubes of catfish, tail-on prawns, and small shrimp stiffened under the action of lime juice and salt, oblique hash marks of red onion, and chunks of sweet potato as garnish. On another visit the pile contained catfish, prawns, and shrimp — but this time there were pieces of baby octopus and tiny mussels, the onions were in a jumble, and the sweet potato had been 86ed.

So the kitchen isn't exactly consistent, but the ceviche tasted good both times: a big, fresh wallop of lime, and the chewy-tender texture of underwater protein. Garnishes here are rough and earthy — hunks of boiled potato, sweet potato if you're lucky, and two kinds of processed corn. The first is posole mais, or hominy, dried flint corn simmered in lime water so it swells and sheds its papery skin. The other is cancha, the dried corn Peruvians call chulpe, the kernels deep-fried to end up hard and chewy. The texture is so dry it's almost powdery, and the taste has a nice, toasty burr, like primordial corn nuts.

Manay's Peruvian cook is Jorge, an older-looking guy. His tamal Peruano, Peruvian-style tamale, is rich, meaty, and satisfying (the menu lists it as a lunch option, but I was able to order one at dinner). Steamed in banana leaves and stained the color of brown sugar, its texture was fragile and soft, barely adhering to big strands of super-tender pork carnitas, a single oil-cured olive, and a tiny dried chile that washed everything with slowly mounting heat. People jam into places that serve tamales a lot less interesting than these.

Another lunch dish, pan con chicharron, was like a post-Thanksgiving snack: a split roll packed with roasted sweet potato and slices of seared pork tenderloin as mild as turkey. Vaguely sweet tasting, a little bland despite its big tangle of Peruvian onion salsa, it was more filling than interesting.

Papa a la huancaina was more interesting than delicious. It's Peruvian potato salad: a thick, pale-yellow sauce — a blended emulsion of queso fresco, evaporated milk, and Peruvian aji amarillo chiles — masking fat slabs of boiled potato. Jorge's sauce laid out a nice, sustained burn from the aji chiles (he uses a commercially made paste from the jar), and the garnish of a fat, purplish Alfonso olive from Chile was an authentic touch. But the blended cheese gave the sauce a chalky texture that made it hard to love. And an underlying bitterness — the taste you get when you shred onions in a blender — tainted every bite.

Don't expect much from Jorge beyond home-style Peruvian. His chicharron de pollo has a kitchen-table appeal: Squares of skin-on chicken trim are marinated and deep-fried naked, without breading, and served with a ramekin of peppered lime juice for dipping. It's a dish that aims no higher than straight up, without a shred of subtlety.

Overcome all squeamishness to order antichucos, grilled beef heart, an appetizer every bit as burly as the fried chicken. The sliced and skewered heart tasted mostly like its marinade: lime juice, garlic, and a big, sweaty whiff of cumin. But the paste-like sauce made it come alive. It looked like darkened guacamole but with an edge as sharp as turpentine: a puree of aji chiles and the herb Peruvians call hucatay, also known as black mint. The leaves are peppery and darkly oily, a blurring of peppermint and rosemary with a hit of black pepper. Manay has a friend who grows it.

Flashes of authenticity like that make the lackluster dishes seem all the more disappointing. The lomo saltado had a rough, hippie stir-fry appeal — coarse-textured beef strips, frozen french fries, tomatoes, and lots of onion. But once the lime-and-soy-sauce-laced juices were gone — slurped up or soaked into the rice — it turned stodgy.

The menu is just too big — even a kitchen with lots of resources would stumble. And though the list of Peruvian dishes is relatively short, it's long on potential disasters.

Take the tallarines, Italian-Peruvian pastas. Tallarin saltado mixto was a depressing kind of fusion: overcooked spaghetti tossed with a stale-tasting saltado of beef and chicken. Saltado de mariscos was worse. Flabby, faded chunks of baby octopus, shrimp, and pale french fries absorbed their pan juices the way a bar coaster absorbs spilled beer. Too many frozen ingredients with dried-out textures were the problem. They were desperate for moisture. But hey — a restaurant as slow as this has to depend on frozen ingredients to survive.

And it is about survival. A crudely painted mural illustrates a struggle every bit as fierce as the one that grips poor, deserted Plaza Garibaldi. It's a bullfight scene, the rearing bull streaming spittle, about to come down on the hapless matador splayed flat on his back in the ring. He's toast — unless the Virgin of Guadalupe, floating pale and bloated above him, can save him.

It's a scene that may give Sofia Manay comfort.

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