My craving for Peruvian saltado had remained unabated for weeks. Normally, my choice would've been Inka Anaheim (formerly El Pollo Inka) for their sublime saltados, but last Friday night, I didn't feel like making the trek there from Irvine. I recalled that in the past, I had a passable dish of saltado at the Costa Mesa Inka Grill. It wasn't the greatest I've ever had, but for tonight, it will have to do. It was time to give them another chance. Maybe they've improved. And since there was an Inka Grill in Irvine (Park Place at Jamboree and Michelson), we thought we'd give that branch a shot. As you will read, it proved to be one of the most horrible decisions I have made in dining in recent memory.
Upon arriving, we noticed that the restaurant was no longer Inka Grill. It was renamed Aji Grill, which I presumed meant that it was under new ownership, but under the same management. Inka Anaheim, for example, used to be El Pollo Inka, but was run by the same people when the name changed. The food under the new name was just as good as before. Looking at Aji, I thought, "Maybe it will be better than Inka Grill." "They can't possibly be worse." These turned out to be the last words of a doomed optimist.
We got there at eight and were promptly seated. There were about four other parties in the restaurant. Rather quiet for a Friday night, I thought. The restaurant was more than half empty. On our way to our seats, I noticed a table which was unbussed. There were plates upon plates of unfinished dishes; some of them barely touched. Not a good sign. "Reserve your judgment," I said to myself.
The waiter brought out the bread and butter along with a squirt bottle of aji, the green sauce made from pureed herbs and spices. The aji was good, but was hotter than I've had before at other Peruvian places. After about ten minutes, the waiter came to take our order, which was Seafood Fried Rice for my girlfriend, my Saltado de Pollo, a third dish of chicken breast and rice for my friend, and lastly, a side order of fried plantains.
Then we waited, and waited, and waited....and waited.
At about minute thirty, we noticed that they finally cleared and bussed the table I saw earlier.
Then we waited and waited...and waited.
At about the forty-five minute mark, the waiter finally came by. "It will be a few more minutes until the food is ready," he said. "Okay," we replied, although at this point, our table conversation had switched to "We should have just gone to Inka Anaheim." "Even with the drive, we'd already be halfway done eating by now." Then, finally at the seventy-five minute mark (that's one hour and fifteen minutes, folks), our food showed up.
This was when my night took a turn for the worst. I looked at the dish they placed in front of me and thought "You've got to be kidding." THIS is supposed to be Saltado de Pollo??! It was a big plate. On half of it was this mound; a brown, soggy mess of wilted fries and red onions which had turned to mush. The other half of my plate had yellowish rice studded with peas and carrots. The mere sight of the rice almost made question if they got my order wrong. Saltado is normally served with white rice. El Pollo Inka/Inka Anaheim's version comes with fluffy white rice. This on the other hand, I just couldn't figure out. My apprehension turned into digust when I tasted the rice. It was, first of all, cold and crusted on the top. Obviously, it had been sitting too long on a cold plate in the kitchen while waiting for the saltado to be done. This so-called rice tasted awful. What wasn't crusted over was gummy, cold, and overly spiced. Then I tried the saltado. The fries which had already practically disintegrated on the plate into a brown paste tasted just as bad as I imagined. What few chicken pieces I found (remember that this was supposed to be "chicken" saltado) was hard, ropy and as dry as burlap. I was actually glad there weren't more chicken in the dish. It was that awful. The rest of this goopy mound consisted of the aforementioned red onions which completely overpowered the dish. Imagine pureeing boiled onions and greasy old french fries and drinking it straight from the blender. That, I think, is the closest description I can offer you of this dish.
Then, realizing that I wasn't on Fear Factor, I gave up on this dish shortly after a few bites. I couldn't stop muttering to myself how I've wasted over an hour and $11.00 for this. Most of all, I felt badly for my friends, who I drug out to eat at this place. I looked over at them and saw that they weren't doing much better. Their dour mood was palpable. My girlfriend barely touched her Seafood Fried Rice. When I leaned over for a taste, it reeked of fish (which indicated to me that the seafood wasn't fresh). Though, upon tasting it, it was at least, better than my dish. Although, that may be too generous of an estimation, since my dish was c**p. Her rice was dry and you can tell they used rice that was way past its prime. When I bit down on it, the grains stubbornly stuck to my teeth. Then after we sat there bewildered at how bad the meal was, we realized, "THEY FORGOT OUR PLANTAINS!"
At this point, we thought that this was our biggest break of the night! We called one of the two waiters over to our table and asked him about the plantains. He looked at us and was searching for something to say. He obviously knew nothing. I promptly told him to just take the plantains off our bill. We didn't want it anymore. To think of what would happen if we said we did. Would they take another hour? Yes, I'd think so. Could they screw up fried plantains? Yes. Absolutely.
In the meantime, I heard another customer, who was dining alone at another table complain to his waiter about his meal. Apparently they had completely screwed up his scallops. From what I can overhear, he was really peeved. No doubt he had to wait as long as we did. But now they were serving this unedible swill?! Obviously he was less patient and forgiving. In fact, he was actually creating such a scene that the other waiter working that night went over to calm him down. They apologized, but could offer nothing. The man threw down some money and left in a huff. Our table looked at each other and sighed. "What a place this is!"
Exhausted, we aked for the check. But when the waiter did come by, we did not complain. We didn't feel the need to. Our faces and our unfinished plates said it all. They knew this was our last visit and most likely will dissuade others to come. At one point when he came back to give me the copy of my receipt, the waiter quickly said "Sorry for the wait." "It's okay," my friend said to him. After all that, we did feel pretty badly for the guy. It was obvious that he and his other waiter cohort were in over their heads. The blame entirely lies on inept kitchen staff, but still, it would have been nice if the waiter came by sooner during our wait to apologize, or even perhaps comp'd us for some part of the meal...anything. But as we expected, they offered nothing. We gave him the standard 15% tip and left. We vowed all the way home we would tell our friends of our experience. My friends told me sternly that the next time I had a craving for Saltado de Pollo....we're making the drive to Anaheim. "Gladly!" I said.