Mango is not what we think of when someone says Peru. Mountains, llamas, Machu Pichu, even interesting textiles come to mind. Nevertheless, in St. Louis, Mango has come to stand for (among other things) Peruvian food. After their Shrewsbury location was firmly grounded, Jorge Calvo and his family have added a second, showier location downtown in the space that formerly held Mosaic, now a block away on Washington.
Peruvian food is not Mexican, although a few familiar words pop up on the menu, thanks to their common language. Two kinds of ceviche are on the appetizer list, for instance and a tamal, here spelled without the final "e," favored in Mexico. This is a distinctly different cuisine. We've had a little experience with it; our visit to Chile revealed that many people there, including restaurant folks, believe the best cooks in their country come from Peru.
The meal began with a dish of plantain chips. We've eaten the commercial chips, as thin and crisps as potato chips but looking like very ripe banana. Not these. They were warm, a little thicker than we've had before, and very tasty, almost addictive. Alongside was a cilantro pesto, with more tartness and garlic than cilantro, but a good go-along with the chips. Turns out they were house-made, an explanation delivered with a note of understandable pride.
In weather like we've been having, soup as a starter is always endearing. Mango's chicken soup is abuela or grandmother style, full of vegetables, with a nice tang, full-flavored but not anywhere near fiery, with some rice at the bottom that was cooked almost to anonymity. The size on the menu turns out to be a large bowl, the server told us, and offered a small cup serving as an alternative, which was just fine. (And the temperature of the soup was just right, thanks.)
That tamal is remarkable. It didn't look to be wrapped in a banana leaf, as the menu had promised, but nevertheless, it was a particularly tasty version, with the masa mixed with ground pork, some peanuts and raisins, the whole thing very lightly sweet and garnished with some pickled red onion that had plenty of zing, plus lemon juice, we'd guess, and pepper. An excellent combination.
The entree seco de carne could be translated as “dry beef” but don't be misled; it's a rich beef stew, the meat cooked to fork-tenderness but lean and tasty, the gravy thick and dark, everything laced with the almost-mysterious taste of cooked cilantro, some very mild pepper and probably some red wine. It comes with refried pinto beans, smoky from their seasoning, and some rice, which is unnecessary but traditional.
The rice also came alongside the aji de gallina, shredded white meat of chicken in a walnut sauce seasoned with the mild golden chile that's found all over that part of South America and is rapidly becoming fashionable in American chef circles. Very comfort-food-y, a creamy, faintly sweet sauce with shreds of parmesan cheese atop it, and the sort of thing that paired up very well with the rice.
Turns out there's a bakery in the family tree, too, so it's no wonder that the sponge cake in the most unusual of the desserts, called pio nono, was incredibly tender. Rolled up like a jelly roll with dulce de leche, or caramel, garnished with raspberry coulis and a strawberry, it's amazingly light. And it reminds us just how good strawberry is with caramel, one of those combinations that everyone seems to overlook.
Plenty of wine, South American and otherwise, but tropical cocktails are called for, somehow. We'd suggest beginning with the pisco sour, pisco being a sort of brandy that's shaken with simple syrup, lemon or lime juice, and egg white and topped with just a tiny drop of Angostura bitters. It's another of those drinks that goes down easily and sneaks up on the unsuspecting, but this visit the bartender approached us with a woeful look. “We're out of eggs. I'm really sorry,” she sighed. So it was a mango mojito instead, cool and unsweet and satisfying, even in this cold weather.
Amiable service, although the kitchen did fire out our entrees with a little too much speed so the entrees arrived while we still were working on appetizer plates. Shouldn't happen, especially when the restaurant is only about a third full.
1101 Lucas Ave.
Lunch and Dinner daily (open Sunday at 1 p.m.)
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Yes