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Fresca Brings Peruvian Cuisine to the Upper Fillmore

It was raining the night my date and I had dinner at Fresca, a popular Peruvian restaurant destination in Pacific Heights. Stepping out of the rain and into the warm, dimly lit dining room of this establishment was like stepping into the cozy den of a provincial South American hacienda. Rust-colored stucco walls, a smooth slate floor, indigenous Peruvian art hung in ornate gold frames on every wall, heavy wooden tables scattered about all that was missing was a blazing fire and a hearth.

The creation of father and son duo Julio and Jose Calvo-Perez, Fresca is a fairly new addition to the Pac Heights dining scene, although savvy diners may already know the original Fresca at 24 West Portal. What was once a closely guarded neighborhood secret is now beginning to catch on with the masses. And how could it not? With the recent demand in San Francisco for authentic Nuevo-Latino fare, many restaurants have opened their doors in the past couple of years in an attempt cater to this dining whim, yet few have met the challenge with the panache of Fresca.

The permeating flavor in most Peruvian food is aji, or the Peruvian chile pepper, and of the 38 menu choices found on the Fresca dinner menu, 22 feature some form of aji. The most well known, the spicy aji amarillo (yellow chile), is found in numerous selections, from the Lenguado Ceviche ($12), where it bathes the sliced halibut in a citrusy marinade, to the Picante de Mariscos ($19.50), or seafood stew, where it lends its distinct flavor in the form of a rich and creamy sauce.

One of the national dishes of Peru is ceviche, or fish "cooked" with the acid in lime juice, and Fresca offers it up six different ways. The most traditional of the choices is the Ceviche Mixto ($12), a classic mix of calamari, clams, scallops, shrimp, and red snapper, seasoned with the mother of all ajis -- the flaming Rocoto. It's a lovely mix of seafood that doesn't try to be fancy and successfully highlights the traditional flavors of Peru. A more adventurous selection is the Ceviche de "Ahi" con Coco ($10), a mix of Ahi tuna and ginger, jalapenos and sweet coconut water. Although interesting, the combination of jalapeno and coconut failed to impress either me or my dinner partner. It felt like there was a battle being waged in our mouths, and unfortunately both flavors came out losers.

The culinary history of Peru has been greatly influenced by the demands of the different groups that have migrated to the country over the last few centuries. Among those with the most influence have been the Japanese and the Chinese, and their contribution to Peruvian food culture is found in abundance on the menu at Fresca. An entire section of the menu is devoted to Tiraditos, or Peruvian sushi. Tirado means, literally, to throw; and here it refers to the throwing of a sauce over ditos, or small bites, of sashimi. The beautifully presented Spicy Tuna Tiradito ($10) is a dish of meltingly tender sliced tuna in a spicy scallion vinaigrette (Japanese sushi restaurants beware - there's a new kid on the block!). Chinese-influenced dishes include the Arroz Chaufa "Mar y Tierra" ($18.95), or house fried rice, and the delightful Tequenos ($8.25), or crab and cream cheese stuffed wontons served with (what else?) an aji amarillo dipping sauce.

And now we must pay homage to the other "root" (or should I say tuber?) of all Peruvian dishes: the potato. Whether it be fried, roasted, pureed, or stuffed, potatoes are found in most traditional Peruvian dishes, such as the Lomo Saltado ($13.95), a simple dish of sautÚd sirloin steak with tomatoes, onions, french fries, and rice. Other dishes where our spud-like friends are found include the Aji de Gallina ($13.95) -- the ultimate Peruvian comfort food, in our opinion -- a heavenly mix of chicken breast, chile cream sauce, walnuts, yukon golds, hardboiled egg, and white rice, and the Dorado Andino ($18.25), a grilled platter of mahi-mahi that is worth ordering for the basil boniato (or South American sweet potato) alone that the mahi sits atop.

Desserts are good, though not outstanding. Our mango cheesecake was tasty enough, and was definitely a nice finale to our meal, but the real stars here are the dishes that incorporate the aji and/or the potato.

As Fresca does not have its liquor license, it serves only beer and wine. The choices of beer are many and the wine list is extensive, and both include selections from various South American countries. Aguila, a Colombian beer, and the Arboleda Chardonnay from Chile both come highly recommended, as both pair very well with the multitude of mild to spicy dishes on the menu.

True Peruvian food aficionados may be asking, what of the anticuchos? Sadly, Fresca does not offer anticuchos, or beef heart, in the true sense. Our waiter did whisper to me, in a tone that implied extreme confidentiality, that every so often real anticuchos are served at Sunday brunch, when the Peruvian folk typically come in to dine. But as much as I would love to frequent this restaurant every Sunday, I think instead I'll look forward to a time when I can order real anticuchos off the menu on any given day, while enjoying a cool, tart Pisco Sour (mixed, or course, from a bottle of Pisco behind the newly approved full-service bar). In the meantime, I am going to spread the word about this little gem, as Fresca is one of those rare places, as their website says, that "you want to tell your friends about, and the place you want to call your own." Indeed.