Lima City - Irvine
Irvine's got its share of office park food courts. If you are a fellow cubicle drone like me, you've been to one. And if you're apt to avoid the usual standbys of the Panda Express clones, you also know which of these food courts actually have something special.
No doubt, by now, you've heard of Franco's Pasta Cucina for those obsession-worthy, made-to-order creations of noodles, sauce and meat, sold cheaply by a man so irascible that in hushed circles he's lovingly referred to as "The Pasta Nazi".
But did you know that there's a Peruvian place inside another food court mere blocks away? That's right. Peruvian. If you've paid attention to Gustavo Arellano and other foodies, you would've known about Lima City*.
It's been years since I returned (thanks partly to Franco). The first time around, I wasn't entirely impressed with a dish of saltado I had there -- too soggy. But yesterday, I tried something else called "Chicken with Mushrooms" and it was terrific.
Despite the fact that there were other interesting items around it also vying for my attention, I immediately locked onto the dish as it gurgled in a metal chafing dish. The cost was $4.99, which is the standard fee for a 1-item meal served with either rice or noodles.
I chose rice and on top of it, the substance was poured. It was a thick gravy as silky as cream, with chunks of butter-soft dark-meat chicken, cubed potatoes, and sliced mushrooms. A tiny container of aji is also included in every order. As I ate, I dunked each forkful of chicken into this spicy, green puree of herbs and chili, taking great care in my portion control so that no morsel goes into my mouth without it.
Next time, I'm buying an extra container of that "green sauce" for $0.35.
But even eaten alone, the dish was exactly the type that aims for my comfort food sensibilities. It reminded me of an Indonesian dish called "opor ayam" that I grew up with, similar to Thai yellow curry. All of them have something in common: rice doused in a flavorful milky-rich liquid, and braised poultry.
But that gravy is key. It unites rice and protein to become a singular entity -- a meal to be scooped in hearty spoonfuls. But in Lima City's case, it also does double duty: since their rice is inordinately dry, the sauce acts to moisten and revive. Those unlucky grains which don't get completely drenched are, in turn, unworthy of consumption.
Lima City also offers other traditional Peruvian items. Some are ready-made, but most, like the mountain of fried seafood called "jalea", have to be cooked-to-order. But who are you kidding. The reason you're at a food court in the first place is to stuff your face within the lunch hour you are allotted. At least with Lima City's chicken and mushrooms, you can come back to the drudgery of your cube, full, happy, and on time.
2540 Main St # J
Irvine, CA 92614
*Update (June 30, 2008): A few weeks ago, Lima City changed ownership. This review is for the last incarnation of the place.
*Update (July 27, 2008): New signs identified the new occupants as Fountain Valley's own Peruvian Kitchen. Read a review of their lomo saltado here.