You can find authentic Peruvian lomo saltado at this Burlington strip mall
El Inka Peruvian Cuisine is located at 1940 Appleby Line in Burlington
I was on a trip through Bogota, Colombia when I was first introduced to lomo saltado. It was in a glossy Peruvian restaurant in the city's entertainment district where a chef from the neighbouring South American country was known for his stir-fried dishes.
"I don't think most people recognize that lomo saltado, which is a very popular Peruvian dish, is part Chinese," said Elliot Gonzales, owner of Burlington restaurant El Inka Peruvian Cuisine.
"It is a take on the Chinese wok-style cooking that the immigrants brought to Peru in the 19th century."
The dish is cooked similarly to Chinese-style stir-fry: in a large wok powered by what sounds like a jet engine, marinated chunks of beef are tossed with an assortment of vegetables, soy sauce and red wine. Oh, and a pepper paste made from native Peruvian aji amarillo peppers.
Depending on where you eat lomo saltado in diversely rich Lima, the capital of Peru, there can be variations with potatoes, but "basically it's vegetables and beef tenderloin that has been marinated for a while," Gonzales said.
Following that trip, I tried to find lomo saltado in Toronto. My search led me to Burlington to a strip mall where El Inka is located.
"I grew up in Burlington," Gonzales said. "The food scene has changed a lot here in the last five years, but we've never had a Peruvian restaurant. My family wanted to change that."
Gonzales is the son of two career restaurateurs. His parents run a number of food establishments in Florida.
"The Peruvian population is big there," he said. "Not so much here, but we seem to find people visiting from all over the GTA."
With the help of his parents, Gonzales was introduced to chef Julio Raffo, a Peruvian native who moved from Florida to Burlington to help Gonzales open El Inka.
It is Raffo's cooking that keeps me revisiting El Inka. At the heart of the cooking is an ode to aji — Peruvian peppers.
"Aji is the essence of our food ... It's kind of what gives the food its vibrancy and life, so we have that throughout the menu here in different forms," Raffo said.
"Each pepper has its own personality."
It's the fruity qualities of both the aji amarillo (yellow) and aji rocoto (red) peppers that are pronounced in chef Raffo's cooking at El Inka.
A good place to start when eating here is the ceviche. Peru's ambassador dish receives a few takes on the menu — the classic is thick chunks of white fish coated in lime juice and dressed with sweet potato, red onions and choclo (Peruvian large-kernel corn).
There's a spicier version of the fish ceviche — trilogia de ceviche — where Raffo includes aji amarillo pepper to liven up the ceviche dressing.
The house's signature ceviche el Inka is my favourite. It's the ocean in a cup, with curls of shrimp, meaty scallop and fatty salmon tossed with pineapple, avocado and cucumbers.
The lomo saltado, though, is the one dish you shouldn't miss. Raffo won't say what goes into seasoning the tenderloin — simply that it is an "old recipe."
He mans the wok like he was born with the steel handle in his hand. Once the meat is in the round-bottomed pot, he furiously shakes the wok with one hand while adding seasoning and sauces with the other.
Once the flame has sufficiently licked the meat and vegetables to his liking, the stir-fry is quickly plated.
"It has everything on one plate," Gonzales said. "The meat is beautifully tender the way Julio cooks it, the sauce is slightly sour and sweet and it has that aji kick at the end."