Had things gone according to Beatrice Loayza's initial plan, there would regularly be dancers in bright Peruvian clothes and saucer-shaped montera hats whirling through the dining room at Inka Wall.
But, as with many grand dreams, this sweet homage to her Peruvian homeland in Upper Darby has begun in the more modest form of a starter BYOB. Husband Vianny, a contractor, helps Beatrice in the back. Her affable son, Scott, whirs up papaya smoothies behind the counter and runs the tidy little dining room in his stylish white "Peru" tracksuit jacket.
And for now, the joyful hoot of panpipes that sounds through the colorful room announces not dancers, but some equally evocative ambassadors of Peru, the savory zing of chickens from the roasting spit, heaping mounds of tangy ceviche, and tall purple glasses of sweet chicha morada, a clove-scented drink stewed from purple corn, lime, and pineapple peels.
The restaurant is a late-blooming career for Loayza, 49, spurred in part by her recovery from breast cancer. A practiced teacher of Peruvian native dance, she'd never been a pro chef before opening in September.
And it's clear that Inka Wall, which took over the old El Sol de Peru space but has no affiliation, is still refining the pacing of meals and learning to gauge the intensity of flavors for its audience.
Loayza's approach so far has been cautious with spice and seasoning. But there's no mistaking her commitment to cooking from scratch, a real find in a region where authentic Peruvian kitchens are sparse, save for a pair of El Balconcitos in Northeast Philly and Juliana's Kitchen in Wilmington.
The choice of a k instead of the usual c in Inka Wall's name is an ode to an older spelling for ruler in the Quechua language, says Scott. The "wall" is a nod to the stone-wall Incan architecture of Cuzco, where Beatrice grew up. And the vivid memories of cooking in her hometown are apparent in the knowing touch she brings to the menu.
The baked empanadas are simple, stuffed with either fine-diced beef, raisins, and aji panca red chile paste, or tender pulled chicken with olives and garlic, or tangy white cheese. Those fillings are wrapped in a handmade dough, shined with a deep-brown egg wash, that crumbles with flaky shortening goodness. Add a bright spoonful of salsa criolla, crunchy plumes of red onion steeped in lime and chile, and the empanadas' subtle flavors suddenly perk into the perfect starter.
Aji de gallina, a hearty shred of tender slow-poached hen breasts, is covered in a thick yellow sauce flavored with two distinct chiles - aji marisol (for heat and color) and aji amarillo (for fruity spice) - creamed with evaporated milk.
And Inka Wall's take on Peru's famous pollo a la brasa merits the trip itself, especially when they're hot off the spit. I'd usually go for the dark-meat option. But these birds are brined as part of a 24-hour process, and the breasts were especially plump and juicy, too, infused with the savor of a cuminy garlic rub with paprika, oregano, and a touch of soy.
The chicken is generally available all the time. So is the bountiful, bright Inka Wall salad of mixed veggies tossed with a vinegary dressing and quinoa grains. I also loved the slow-braised beef "seco de carne," a cuminy cilantro stew served with rice and fantastically flavorful canario white beans. The classic lomo saltado beef stir-fry over french fries (plus rice, lest that wasn't enough starch) was less exciting.
But much of Inka Wall's best is cooked on weekends only from Friday through Sunday, or with special notice.
Chief among those is the ceviche, which requires a two-hour prep that is worth the call. Fresh tilapia is diced and marinated in lime and bitter orange juice with ginger and aji spice. Fully soaked, its assertive tang and salty bite (even without a fishy backbone of typical leche de tigre, not used here) are perfectly tempered by the starchy pop and sweet softness of two traditional accompaniments, the huge kernels of mote corn and tender rounds of camote sweet potatoes.
Tubers are key in Peruvian cooking. Batons of fresh fried yucca make a wonderful starter, served with the creamy yellow Huancaína sauce made from roasted peanuts, cheese, and aji amarillos - though in this instance I'd have liked more pepper spice. (A bottle of red rocoto chile sauce on the side was adequate to dial it up.)
Loayza's cooking, though, is more about deeply steeped, home-style flavors than spice. Chicken gizzards may not be sexy, but they make a remarkably earthy broth for the weekend "aguadito" soup, flavored with cilantro and studded with Andean choclo corn, peas, and potatoes.
A true weekend favorite is called carapulcra, a rich brown stew of diced fried pork, chicken, and wine, ladled over nuggets of chuño freeze-dried potatoes that are rehydrated and braised with aji chiles and garlic. It wasn't pretty, but I couldn't resist returning for more, even the next day for leftovers. The arroz con pato was another good example of a delicious ugly duckling, literally, the hunks of boiled bird a grayish-green from their herb-infused boil, but also impressively tender. The accompanying rice, tinted cilantro green, was rich with duck stock.
The tallarin verde, on the other hand, was as eye-catching as it was tasty, a thin pad of garlicky pan-fried skirt steak placed atop spaghetti tossed in a silky Peruvian pesto. Vibrant emerald with spinach and basil, and lightly creamed with cheese and milk, it was a fine reminder of the international flavors that often influence South American cooking.
For dessert, though, Loayza turns to pure Latin bakery classics. As I took a reviving sip of mate de coca tea and plunged my fork into a slice of fresh tres leches, its soak of cool sweet cream surged to the sponge cake's surface. With the panpipes playing and a satisfying meal behind us, Beatrice Loayza's Peruvian dream was already coming true.