After clearing the Florida coast, Captain Gastro angles his faithful craft, the Consumption, toward the Caribbean, in his continuing quest to circle the globe through East Valley restaurants.
Steering by digestive compass, the Captain found Cuba in a Paradise Valley strip mall on East Bell Road. Wrought iron gates and cement floors might seem an unlikely place to evoke the Caribbean, but Havana Cafe Patio has fashioned a cool enclave of deep green wall and floor murals, faux palms and lazily turning ceiling fans. Solemn, tuxedoed waiters move about to the beat of bongos and Cuban singers.
The Pollo Cubano ($8), chicken smothered in caramelized onions and seasoned with lime, is especially good. But the Captain’s favorite was the Brazo Gitano, "The Gypsy’s Embrace" ($5), a slice of sweet bread with apricot preserves folded in, beneath a fruit topping and whipped cream. (Several tugs were required to pull the Captain free.)
Lush establishments like this seem to thrive in the nooks of strip malls. In Chandler, wedged between a kung fu gym and an Oriental grocery, Peruanitos Peruvian Restaurant wraps Incan art and pistachio walls around a small dance floor.
There, salsa dancing lights the night and the international language of "smorgasbord" rules the day. Peruvian food is an eclectic blend of rice, lamb, chicken, pork, fish and taters. Peruanitos’ 14-entree lunch buffet ($7) offers a great overview of delicious landmarks like slow-cooked pork, green spaghetti (sounds a little Dr. Seuss-ish, but it’s a tasty combo of basil noodles and cilantro.) The buffet is good (the Captain went back to check. Several times.)
While you eat, the 3-year-old, family-run restaurant surrounds you with music from South America, vivid color photographs of the Andes Mountains and their environs. Peruvian crafts are for sale on one wall, and a huge woven homage to the alpaca fills another. Dinners, which feature more seafood and spice, run $10 to $16.
Those choosing to dwell in the world of South American cuisine have other East Valley options: The Peruvian Palace on Alma School Road in Mesa features a wide variety of Peruvian dishes; while Scottsdale’s Rio Brazilian Steakhouse offers a zesty take on beef, served in the kind of generous, heaping portions that make it a favorite of carnivores, ambitious appetites and elastic waistband makers everywhere.
But, as the Captain departs for Antarctica (no restaurants there, just a Gap and two Starbucks) he will miss Peruanitos’ Crema Volteada most — its flan with a rich, custardy texture, topped with something maple syrupish that makes you miss Peru even though you’ve never been there.