In a gravel lot, across from The Vern, Rafael Luis Garcia is quietly turning out some of the most exciting Peruvian food in Portland.
A native of Trujillo, Peru, a coastal city in the country’s northwest, Garcia spent 19 years managing McDonald’s restaurants in Utah and Portland before making the leap to owning his own truck. Salt & Pepper (not affiliated with the restaurant on SE Powell with the same name) boasts a massive menu, although Garcia rotates the availability of certain dishes (I still haven’t caught him on a day when he’s actually making causa, a historically delicious mashed potato terrine of sorts, layered with proteins like chicken or seafood.)
But the limited availability is how Garcia makes sure what he’s serving is always fresh—and wildly flavorful.
Garcia buys fish daily for his ceviche ($17), prepared traditionally with lime, cumin, onion, cilantro, cancha (crunchy corn nuts), and what Garcia simply describes as “Peruvian spices.” It’s simple, generous, and would be twice the price at a sit-down restaurant. I prefer the fish ceviche, which firms up and soaks in the citrus and spice before melting away on the tongue, but I wouldn’t kick the mixed ceviche (with mussels, squid, clams, and fish) out of bed either.
Salt & Pepper features several specialties of Garcia’s home region. The best is the Pato Norteño ($15), a braised duck dish with beans and rice that I don’t think you see too often outside Peru. The duck is good and all, but the sauce and the beans are what really sing; a savory delight with just the slightest kick of heat on the back end. Put them in a bathtub and I’m getting in.
Another regional specialty is braised lamb which goes by the name Cordero Trujillano ($15). It’s a milder tomato-based sauce, but rich, with fall-off-the-bone lamb, with soft beans and rice.
There are also more well-known Peruvian hits, like lomo saltado ($13), which features marinated stir-fried beef with onions, tomatoes, and French fries, here given an umami kick and just the right levels of acid. Arroz con pollo and whole fried fish are also good bets.
Garcia capitalizes on Peru’s unique history of cultural exchange, making dishes with Chinese (fried rice with veggies or fish) and Italian (spaghetti noodles with spicy sauce and seafood) influence without really going full fusion.
There’s beef heart skewers and papa rellena ($6.50), a deep-fried mashed potato ball with beef stew on the inside. It wasn’t my favorite option, considering the stew had raisins—but it’s more of a “not my cup of tea” situation than something universally unappealing.
I don’t live far from Salt & Pepper, and as of now, every time I pass, there are rarely more than a couple folks either waiting for food or sitting and eating in the lot where Garcia plates dishes on actual ceramic, accented with rice scooped into perfect pyramids.
If it’s cold or raining, call ahead to order, as Garcia’s home cooking takes time. But no matter what, make sure you get here, because Salt & Pepper is a real Peruvian gem.