Cultural Exchange

At Mayta's Peruvian Cuisine Tastes are Foreign and Familiar

By April Bartel | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 06.04.16 – Dining, Food & Drink

Potatoes are South America’s gift to the world. Since the Conquistadors disembarked in search of New World gold and glory, these humble tubers have transformed the way we eat. They show up in Indian curries, Polish dumplings, German salads and Irish stews, or “Frenched” and fried just about anywhere hamburgers are sold.

Meat and potatoes, anyone? Corn, potatoes, grilled chicken, cool salads and a little something sweet to top it off are mainstays of the modern American table. In a way, this makes Mayta’s Peruvian Cuisine “All-American” … well, South American.

The ingredients may be mostly familiar at Mayta’s in Westview Village along Buckeystown Pike, but their treatment is distinct. Meals here are a mix of familiar and exotic, assuming you didn’t grow up in Peru or with a Peruvian parent preparing your meals. Humble potatoes star in several entrees. Corn is purple and sweet. Chicken sizzles with notes of cumin, pepper, garlic and wine vinegar. There is ice cream, too, but not basic chocolate (that other South American treasure) or vanilla. To chef/owner, Jorge Velasquez, it’s all just a little taste of home and he can’t wait to share.

Velasquez grew up enjoying the delectable benefits of having a mom and grandmother who owned several restaurants in his hometown of Chimbote, Peru, about six hours north of Lima. Their relaxed eateries, known as cevicherias, used coastal Chimbote’s fresh seafood to dish up one of the country’s most famous specialties, ceviche (raw fish cured in citrus with spicy ají pepper, tomato and onion served cold), along with other local favorites. He struck out on his own at 21 years old, moving to California in search of opportunity and gnarly waves. While there he took up the family cooking tradition, mostly to pay the rent, and discovered how much he enjoyed making people happy through food. Velasquez started with culinary training at City College of San Francisco and the Art Institute of California, working his way up the kitchen ranks and across the country.

Nearly 15 years later, including a four-year stint as executive chef at Isabella’s Tavern & Tapas Bar on North Market Street, Velasquez has come full circle. He opened Mayta’s Peruvian Cuisine last November, hoping to give local foodies another option beyond Frederick’s plentiful chain restaurants. Velasquez’s mother came to help with planning and opening. Her enduring advice was, “Do it real Peruvian.” And he did. “The way you eat here,” he insists, “is the way you eat in my country.” He clarifies that doesn’t mean adhering to a set of fussy rules, but to a relaxed spirit and authentic flavors, the way mom would make it.

Incan Essence

Of course, he serves ceviche. It’s the national dish of Peru and an homage to family. Guests can choose from three varieties: traditional, Mayta’s and Mixto. The assortment shows Velasquez’s playfulness with ingredients by adding corn, sweet potato glaze and leche de tigre (“tiger’s milk,” a saucy base of fish juices, lime and spice). He also plates up causas, which are mounds of seasoned whipped potatoes topped with cangrejo (crab), atun (tuna) or chicken, also served cold. Artichuchos from the grill (skewers loaded with marinated brochettes of chicken, beef or shrimp) come with sides such as roasted purple potatoes, sweet potatoes or Peruvian corn. Mayta’s also offers para picar, a selection of smaller plates of snacks and appetizers for nibbling or sharing. Here, creamy avocados pair with delicate crab while hearty potatoes are stuffed with sweet-savory ground beef.

When asked which is his favorite meal of the 50-plus menu items, Velasquez chooses two. His mouth breaks into a slow smile and his eyes roll slightly upward, “Seco de carne (beef short ribs) or lomo saltado (steak and potato).” Lomo is tender steak seasoned with soy sauce and sautéed in a wok with onion and tomato, which patrons could get as an entrée or sanguche (sandwich).

Woks and soy sauce? Although firmly based on native ingredients, today’s Peruvian cuisine fuses cooking highlights from its diverse immigrant populations, too.  Spanish, Basque and African tastes and techniques filtered in throughout the country’s colonial period. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, waves of laborers from China and Japan came to Peru, broadening local palates further. It’s now just as common to enjoy a dinner of seafood and rice, a la Spanish paella, tiraditos (Japanese-inspired Peruvian sashimi), or bites of wok-fried meats and veggies over rice or noodles. Salchipapas, Peru’s take on the hot dog, also appear on Mayta’s menu, fried and mixed with French fries, ketchup, mustard and mayo.

Sides and desserts round out the substantial menu, where common fries go toe-to-toe with starchy plantains and yucca root. If you save room for dessert, there’s always the fruit-studded purple corn pudding, a popular classic called mazamorra morada. It’s a loosely gelled bowlful of strikingly-hued sweetness that matches the chicha morada, a spiced juice drink also made from purple corn. As for ice cream, Mayta’s dishes up mango, guava, passion fruit, cherimoya and lacuma—the number-one flavor in Peru.

Velasquez christened the place after the Incan Empire leader Mayta Capac of Machu Picchu. “He fought for the people,” he says, “for the villages, for the families” against invaders. It’s the iconic Mayta’s indomitable spirit that resonates with Velasquez, as well as his commitment to preserving their shared heritage. “I came here with nothing in my pocket,” he says. “I had to fight, to work hard every day … for my future.” Now he is working hard to build up a clientele. “We cook with passion and love and we want people to be happy.” Based on feedback from customers on Facebook, Yelp and TripAdvisor, it looks like Velasquez is winning.