First Look: Mimi’s Place
A Peruvian food eatery opens in Mānoa Valley.
Photos: Courtesy of Mimi’s Place
“You get the front row seat,” says the waitress, as she seats us at the table nearest the brick-lined pass-through to the kitchen. A huge flame flares up from the industrial cooktop, where a little brown-haired lady stands with her back to us, cooking. “That’s the lomo,” says the waitress with a conspiratorial smile. “Don’t worry, it’s supposed to do that.” She turns to adjust a wobbly table, then coos at a toddler who has climbed down from his seat to goggle at the goings-on.
The lady at the stove is Mimi, and we’re at Mimi’s Place, a long-term pop-up that is putting down tentative roots in Mānoa Valley. Mimi’s serves Peruvian food, which takes South American staples (like corn, potato, tomato and cassava, all of which originated in South America and spread across the globe) and layers them with 500 years of slowly evolving colonial influences from Japan, China, Morocco and, most of all, Spain. The result is what food writer Eric Asimov called “the original fusion food.” He also called it one of the world’s great cuisines.
Peruvian food is considered tough to do in America, partly because it’s not as well-known, and partly because it relies on a host of ingredients that are harder to find, like cassava and choclo, a Peruvian variety of corn whose starchy, subtly flavored kernels are up to five times the size of the Jolly Green Giant’s.
The arroz con pollo.
Mimi’s Place started slow, as a monthly slot at Taste Table. Then, says Mimi’s daughter Katya Rivasplata, who staffs the front of house while Mimi throws flames in back, it grew from there: “We used to open once a month, then it was twice a month, then once a week. Now it’s twice a week.” Within a few months, Rivasplata’s brother will join Mimi in the kitchen, and Mimi’s Place will add more days to its week.
Every meal starts with a little bowl of roasted, salted choclo. That and other types of South American corn appear in many other forms throughout Mimi’s menu, from side dishes to chicha morada, a sweet drink made from cinnamon and purple corn.
The ceviche featuring choclo.
Come to Mimi’s for the ceviche, the famous dish of seafood “cooked” in a citrus marinade that is said to have originated in Peru (although some credit Polynesian voyagers). Mimi serves theirs uncommonly sharp, paired with mild choclo and creamy orange sweet potatoes—a combination that sounded weird until it made absolute sense in my mouth.
THE LOMO SALTADO.
Then stay for the lomo saltado, which our waitress described as the “Peruvian national dish,” the one everybody asks for when they walk in the door. No wonder: Lomo saltado throws together beef and onion in a tangy sauce, served over fries with a side of flavorful rice: a creative balancing act between European steak frites and Chinese stir-fry that is somehow much greater than the sum of its parts. My only quibble was that the crinkle-cut fries looked factory-made. That said, I’d order it again in a second.
Those two dishes are always on the menu at Mimi’s Place (“If we take those away, customers will complain,” said Rivasplata), but much of the rest of the menu changes every week. You might get flaky, hand-size empanadas deliciously filled with meat and olives, or yuca (cassava) frita, which taste like potato’s mysterious, more exotic, cousin. These are hand-cut, with a crisp exterior and a creamy interior.
The tallarin saltado.
The tallarines verdes con bistek (breaded, pan-fried steak with pesto pasta), on the other hand, wasn’t as successful. I found the noodles and meat too soft for my taste and the pesto a bit bland, though my dining buddy said it was his second-favorite dish on the table. The menu extends to seafood, and chicken dishes like pollo al mani, a peanut-based stew. Vegetarians might do better sticking to the appetizers, where they’ll find Peruvian classics like papa con tres cremas, yellow potatoes with three vibrantly colored sauces.
Wash it all down with chicha morada or a glass of Inca Kola, a fizzy, fluorescent drink that in Peru is more popular than Coke. Or bring a bottle of wine—there’s no corkage fee unless there are more than five in your party. Entrées are priced at $15–$20, reflecting the high proportion of imported ingredients.
Die-hard foodies accustomed to professional-grade plating and who love discussions of the ingredients’ sources might be disappointed. The whole experience of Mimi’s, from the service to the food, feels more like home cooking and armchair travel rolled into one. I’m guessing eaters who like their food memorable and a tad rustic, and the atmosphere and welcome authentic, will like it. A lot. In its third week at the new location, I emerged in the evening to find people drifting toward the restaurant’s golden glow from several directions.
For now, Mimi’s Place benefits from another restaurateur who believes in taking things slow. Savas Mojarrad, of Olive Tree Café, is letting Mimi and her family run the show from his lovingly renovated (hand-blown glass fixtures, hand-painted tiles) venue at the corner of Lowrey Avenue and East Mānoa Road. They hope to stay as long as they can, says Rivasplata: “Right now, there’s no time limit.”
Nevertheless, if you want to try one of the world’s great cuisines in homey, welcoming surroundings, I wouldn’t wait around.
Mimi’s Place, Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m., 358-1475.