Over the past couple of months, I have been on a secret mission to taste, photograph, and take notes on how six different restaurants in San Francisco prepare one of my favorite Peruvian dishes — Lomo Saltado, a beef stir fry that is a great example of the wonderful fusion of Peruvian and Chinese cuisines. You should know that I have been cooking this dish for decades and am very familiar with its ingredients, flavors, and textures. In other words, I am the person you want to hire as your Lomo Saltado taster and these are the secrets I learned on my mission.
First of all, I chose six restaurants that in my opinion represent a varied spectrum of Peruvian cuisine. Some of the restaurants prepare more traditional dishes, while others explore the modern Novo Andino cuisine. Some are located in the Mission while others are in the more affluent Noe Valley or the touristy Embarcadero. Whatever their differences, one of their common denominators is the Lomo Saltado.
Second, a good Lomo Saltado must have good ingredients, including tenderloin beef, red onions, scallions, tomatoes, french fries, garlic, ginger, vinegar, aji amarillo, cilantro, and soy sauce. And as you can imagine, the quality of the ingredients can drastically affect the price of the dish. The average price of Lomo Saltado for lunch was about $15, with the low end at $9 and the high end at $27, a three-fold difference.
Though I focused on the actual dish, it’s hard to ignore the ambience and general vibe of where one is eating. Here there was also a large difference, and I am sure that can also affect the cost of the dish. Regardless of the setting or how full the place was, it was curious that nobody noticed that I was taking pictures of my lunch, or wondering why I was asking so many questions about the ingredients in the dish.
At La Mar, the beef was a top quality tenderloin, and the beef, onions, tomatoes, and fries were all large cuts. What really stood out, however, was the flavor of the sauce, a delicious combination of soy sauce, beef stock, and oyster sauce. Mi Lindo Peru used a much lighter and simpler sauce, likely flavored by the natural juice of the beef that was released when it was stir fried. I also really liked the smaller cuts of beef, onions, tomatoes, and french fries, all of which I could combine in one bite.
Fresca and Mochica both used larger cuts for the ingredients, while Limon Rotisserie and Inkas used smaller cuts. However, their sauces were very different than either La Mar or Mi Lindo Peru. Both Limon Rotisserie and Fresca used sauces with a strong vinegar flavor that is best enjoyed in small portions. In contrast, Mochica and Inkas used a tomato based sauce that was very different from the spicier soy sauce flavor I am used to.
Another difference was the texture of the dishes. Some Lomo Saltados had the french fries on top, dry and crisp, so that you can mix them in just before eating. Others had the fries mixed in, allowing them to absorb some of the juice from the sauce. In the latter, one has to be careful to keep the fries from becoming soggy and serve the dish immediately, almost jumping off the Wok or saute pan.
After completing my mission, I was delighted to discover that Lomo Saltado is alive and kicking in San Francisco. It was also fascinating to learn that despite using the same basic ingredients, a slight variation in proportions, cuts, spices, or sauces can make a big and delicious difference. Otherwise, can you imagine that after having six different Lomo Saltados for lunch, I would have reported “they all taste exactly the same!” — how boring would that be?