Well that was fun! We had an excellent dinner at Panka, the new (and we gather first) Peruvian Restaurant in Des Moines, almost hidden along Ingersoll Avenue, sandwiched between two chain restaurants in a strip mall. But the small 43-seat place has a real verve and vibe, with sleek modern furnishings, an open kitchen and brightly colored photos of Peru on the walls. The place was packed last Saturday at 7 p.m. on a bitter cold February night and for good reason. The food was outstanding — and reminded us fondly of when we ate our way through Peru – – which has one of the world’s best food cultures — several years ago when our son was studying abroad during college in Lima.
We tried several of the many Peruvian dishes that we loved when in-country and they tasted very similar to what we once ate, sometimes even better. The lomo saltado, a beef stir fry with thick slices of onion and tomatoes, in particular, was better than I remembered it in Peru, maybe because the beef was so tender and flavorful. The aji di gallina, a creole chicken stew in a thick creamy yellow sauce with sliced potatoes, did not disappoint. Nor did the ceviche — there were several kinds. We went with the Peruano, which an English guy sitting next to us recommended. The chicharron de cerdo (crunchy porkbelly chunks) were maybe the one weak link — a little dry and not as crispy as I’d like.
The place felt South American lively, with the two enthusiastic welcoming owners — both women originally from Peru — helping out the servers and the chefs in the open kitchen. There are some kinks to work out, as is the case with any new restaurant. Our five shared dishes including a delicious Aguadito soup (light cilantro-laden broth with chunks of chicken) arrived after a considerable wait and all at once which meant that once we finished the soup (which could have been warmer) the other dishes were cold. The kitchen also ran out of desserts, all homemade including a chocolate cake that several of our neighbors had (and looked great). No liquor license yet so no pisco sours but we thought to bring wine and I don’t believe there was a corkage fee.
We can’t wait to return!! Next time, we will make a reservation. We got in without one this trip but just barely…