It may not be obvious, but the new restaurant Mamón Hillside Eatery, located just a few doors down from the Inka Mama’s flagship location in Foothill Ranch, is also a Peruvian restaurant. Well, sort of. There are hints of Peru everywhere, but only if you’re paying attention.
I’m pretty sure I saw bottles of Inka Cola in a bucket next to the cash register. And when I ordered a sandwich, it came with a plastic thimble of aji, that green salsa-like substance you often find in squirt bottles and served with the bread basket at places such as, well, Inka Mama’s.
No matter where I am, I put the aji on everything. This emulsion of aji amarillo peppers, garlic and cilantro functioned as it always does: magically elevating anything it touches, especially if it’s made of potato. Did I mention the potatoes? Mamón produces at least four different preparations of side dishes using the tuber, which should be the biggest clue of all, as Peruvians love potatoes.
In particular, there’s a so-called “rustic potato sauté,” in which big chunks of potatoes are boiled, then cooked with micro bits of onion that cling to them as if they were barnacles. But there was something else about the side dish, a distinct flavor and yellow tint that made me think it was alluding to the Peruvian dish causa rellena, which happens to be a favorite of mine. Whatever it aimed to be, it felt good going down—wholesome, warm, filling. For lack of a better term, it was comfort food.
And comfort is the whole point of this restaurant. The focus is on the simple and the uncomplicated—food you really don’t have to think too much about. The lentil soup is actually more of a stew and so hearty and homey it could’ve nursed me back to health had I been sick.
Aside from the soups, most of your entire experience here centers on four roasted meats: chicken, tri tip, pork and salmon. If you opt for one of them as a plate, all you’ll need to decide is whether you want a 4-, 6- or 8-ounce portion. A simply dressed salad is included, but you also get a side dish that can be something warm, such as that potato sauté, or something cold, such as a red quinoa salad, which is displayed in a refrigerated deli case off to the side.
Between the four meats, you should get the pork, which comes as a pink slab that might be the closest thing I’ve seen to a prime rib of pig. A thin layer of fat and seasoned crust borders its outer rim. Depending on when you go, the pork can range from being very tender and moist to being slightly dry and chewy. But no matter the consistency, I found something pure in the flavor—an unadulterated porkiness, as though I were eating carnitas in its pre-shredded form.
If you want something that’s more overtly Peruvian, the sandwich called “There’s an Egg Involved” has sautéed tomatoes, onions and cilantro. As I watched the line cook toss the ingredients together on the griddle and squirt what looked to be soy sauce, it confirmed what I kind of already knew: It’s lomo saltado in a bun. It’s also the best way to try the tri tip, which was sliced into thick pieces and stuffed along with that aromatic stir-fry inside a square, ciabatta-like bread called Francese that’s smeared with lots of aji sauce. You should, by all means, pay the upcharge and get the fries alongside this sandwich, if only to fully reconstruct the lomo saltado with its last puzzle piece. But more than that, the fries are served rippling-hot from the fryer and are the ideal thing to dip into the aji.
About the only problem I have with this sandwich was the egg that’s its namesake. It didn’t add much to the party, and the runny yolk made it impossible to eat without making a mess. Next time, I’m going to ask the line cook to make it well-done.
That line cook, by the way, is also one of the owners. When I asked him to confirm the restaurant’s affiliation to Inka Mama’s, he smiled and said, “Yes! That’s my mom!”
“So what does mamón mean?” I asked curiously.
“It means mama’s boy,” he replied with a wink.
Mamón Hillside Eatery, 26676 Portola Pkwy., Ste. D, Foothill Ranch, (949) 305-8552; mamonrestaurants.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Meals, $8.50-$16. Beer and wine.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.