Restaurant dishes

First bite: West Houston restaurant offers exciting Peruvian cuisine

Pasha Nikkei, chief At Masaru Fukuda’s new restaurant in 10001 Westheimer, Nikkei cuisine highlightsa harmonious blend of Peruvian and Japanese flavors and techniques unique to Peru. When entering, a woman waiting for a takeout order told me and my table mate that we were in for a treat. She excitedly told us that she had been there three times since the restaurant opened a few weeks ago and that as a Peruvian she hadn’t found good examples of her native cuisine in Houston until here. The stranger certainly set high expectations even before we sat down.

    Shisha-infused pisco sour at Pacha Nikkei.  Photo by Cindy Wang.
Shisha-infused pisco sour at Pacha Nikkei. Photo by Cindy Wang.

Houston Food Finder had been invited to try dishes and we were ready to strap in for the ride. We started with pisco sour. Traditionally made with pisco (a light grape brandy from South America), lime juice, simple syrup and egg white, my chica morada pisco sour had a bright burgundy color and earthy sweetness thanks to the purple corn used to make the shisha, a traditional fermented drink in Peru. A frothy egg mousse capped on top, giving a cloud-like texture. On the other hand, my companion Pisco sour with maracuya was bright and refreshing, sporting lots of passion fruit flavor without being overly sweet. We have not tried the Old-fashioned Wagyuwhich is made with Wagyu fat-washed bourbon and a reduction of shiitake and nori, but I’m a sucker for an intriguing cocktail with a savory bent, so it’s definitely marked in my mind for a future visit.

Gyoza frita and Huancaína papitas at Pacha Nikkei.  Photo by Cindy Wang.
Gyoza frita and Huancaína papitas at Pacha Nikkei. Photo by Cindy Wang.

Our server recommended the Papitas a la HuancaIn / A as a starter, a classic Peruvian appetizer named after the Peruvian city Huancayo. It is a cold dish consisting of a mixture of tender Peruvian potatoes in a creamy sauce Huancaina sauce made from evaporated milk and cheese. Chef Fukuda’s interpretation replaces the black olives that typically garnish this dish with splashes of homemade sauce botija olive aioli, and finish with a quail egg perched on top. EEach bite is generously coated in the lightly peppered cheese sauce, and a swipe through the purple-hued aioli giveses an extra punch of fragrant richness.

Our server also recommended the gyoza frita, or deep-fried pork balls drizzled with tonkatsu sauce and yuzu-kosho aioli, then topped with bonito flakes and nori. The chef could have applied the yuzu-kosho aioli more generously, but that didn’t detract from the experience. No crime committed here. It was an excellent introduction, even if it was not remarkable. Dumplingsincluding gyoza, are ubiquitous these days, so there’s a lot of competition.

Ceviche Calacho at Pacha Nikkei.  Photo by Cindy Wang.
Ceviche Calacho at Pacha Nikkei. Photo by Cindy Wang.

Pacha Nikkei’s menu includes an entire section dedicated to Peruvian ceviche, a dish that some say is synonymous with Nikkei cuisine. This is due to the practice of drying fish in citrus juice and serve it immediately rather than letting it marinate for hoursa method that has its roots in Japanese sashimi. The chalaco ceviche is a vibrant kaleidoscope of flavors and textures featuring thick slices of Peruvian mahi-mahi, plump prawns, octopus and golden chunks of fried cuttlefish scattered on top. Everything is nested in a spicy leche de tigre made with lime (tiger milk) with aji amarillo pepper and, to my delight, rocoto, a fiery red pepper that I fell in love with during a visit to Peru there many years ago and whom I have not met since . Soft kernels of choclo (large-kernel Peruvian corn) and crunchy bites of cancha (crunchy, dry-roasted corn kernels) provide a fun contrast in texture to softer seafood, and slivers of red onion add flavor. sharpness with every bite. The whole is punctuated with touches of mashed sweet potatoes, which our server advised us to eat between two bites of marinated seafood pie. The tangy leche de tigre has plenty of heat from the chilies that linger in every bite, which the mashed sweet potatoes temper.

Pulpo (octopus) at Pacha Nikkei.  Photo by Cindy Wang.
Pulpo (octopus) at Pacha Nikkei. Photo by Cindy Wang.

The pulp, one of the hot dishes, is a tender piece of Spanish octopus that doesn’t require a knife. Served with a little Arctic char perfect for adding smoke and texture, it comes with a mix of Peruvian potatoes, seasoned choclo, botija olive aioli and a brilliant green sauce with base of huacatay, an aromatic herb from the Andes sometimes called black mint. The potatoes and botija olive aioli seemed a little repetitive as they were already in the papitas a la Huancaína, but were always welcome, as were the smoked seasoned choclo pits – which are always fun to eat.

Lomo saltado at Pasha Nikkei.  Photo by Cindy Wang.
Lomo saltado at Pasha Nikkei. Photo by Cindy Wang.

The lomo saltado was the standout dish, and it was the one that the woman I met up front praised the most. This classic chifa (Peruvian-Chinese fusion) stir-fry is served as generous portion that two can easily share. Pieces of beef tenderloin marinated in soy sauce and oysters are fried in a wok, resulting in mouth-watering bites of beef that are tossed with lightly browned red onion slices for a little sweetness. The the juicy tomato slices hold their shape and aren’t mushy, but also don’t make the rest of the dish watery. Each bite bursts in your mouth like an umami bomb. The lomo saltado is traditionally served with fries, but Chef Fukuda replaces this element with potato wedges which absorb all the flavors of the beef and tomatoes wonderfully. Even after our other plates were cleared from the table, we saved the lomo saltado for occasional dipping, wanting to savor it a little longer before dessert.

My dining companion and I remarked that the dish reminded us of a well done plate of Vietnamese dishes bò lúc lắc, which translates to “shaking the beef,” and funny enough, “lomo saltado” translates to “skipping tenderloin,” referring to how the dish is tossed into the wok during preparation. It’s one of those fun coincidences that shows how some food preparations have parallels around the world.

Pacha Nikkei Lucuma Cheesecake.  Photo by Cindy Wang.
Pacha Nikkei Lucuma Cheesecake. Photo by Cindy Wang.

We ended the evening with Lucuma Cheesecake, a dense and creamy dessert. Lucuma is a fruit native to the Andes that has a characteristic caramel quality. The fruity undertones and caramel notes of the cheesecake reminded me of Taiwanese pineapple cake. Our server said it reminded him of cajeta. It was an example of how a common flavor can trigger different memories for different people, perhaps proving that masterfully used ingredients mixed in all the right ways can result in moments of universal enjoyment.

Peruvian cuisine is not highlighted enough in Houston, let alone Nikkei cuisine. If Pacha Nikkei can be an ambassador for this brilliant and highly underrated flavor landscape, then maybe we’ll all find our lucuma cheesecake moment.

Pacha Nikkei currently serves dinner only and is open Monday through Thursday from 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday through Saturday from 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.


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