Southern Exposure

Mango brings Peru to the Lou


7307 Watson Road, Shrewsbury

Pascualina $4
Ceviche $9
Cau cau de pollo $8
Pisco sour $5.50

314-752-8300. Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Tue.-Thu.; 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.

For a foreign cuisine I'd never actually sunk my teeth into, I sure was armed to the teeth with expectations when I went to sample the fare at Mango Authentic Peruvian Cuisine in south county. The week prior, my New York friend Todd casually and coincidentally mentioned to me by e-mail that, in his neck of the woods, "the latest craze seems to be Peruvian." I nearly jumped out of my office chair. In gastronomically with-it Gotham, Peruvian places were "popping up more than tapas places," he typed. I could have danced a little jig. Little ol' St. Louis just came out of the thick of its tapas boom, thanks to places like Bastante on the south side and Mirasol in the Loop, and suddenly we're now nipping at New York's heels with our own Peruvian restaurant. Could it be that the Lou, a city usually five or so years behind the tide of bicoastal culinary fads, is finally catching up to blue-state style?

When I pressed Todd for more information, he mentioned Coco Roco, a Brooklyn bistro on Park Slope's Fifth Avenue -- a strip that is to outer-borough dining what its Manhattan namesake is to megabucks shopping. I dug around on the Internet and found that Coco Roco, which has been around a few years, boasts Peruvian staples such as ceviche, roasted chicken (a half or a whole) and cancha, roasted corn nuts traditionally offered in lieu of a bread basket. Write-ups of other Peruvian places mentioned menu items such as lomo saltado (chopped steak with onions, tomatoes, potatoes and rice), anticucho de corazon (beef-heart kebabs) and rocoto relleno (green peppers stuffed with beef and vegetables); more exotic plates like goat steak and tripe stew; and more recognizable south-of-the-border fare such as tamales and empanadas. Best of all, everything seemed reasonably priced, especially by New York standards.

Mango is housed in a Dierbergs-helmed shopping plaza at the St. Louis-Shrewsbury border -- a fact that could easily deflate one's hopes for something spicy, at least aesthetically. But Mango, which opened in September in a space previously occupied by the well-known ethnic-foodie destination Sukho Thai, is probably the best St. Louis strip-mall restaurant I've ever visited -- precisely because, once you're inside, it feels nothing like a strip mall. Simple, modest blinds on the storefront windows cancel out the icky suburban air. The walls are done in deep, vibrant scarlet (similar, I happily noted, to the colors purportedly in play at Coco Roco), with touches of South American art. The small bar area is partitioned off from the main dining room by panels of wooden latticework. Mango may lack the let-your- hair-down festive vibe of tapas or pan-Latin places (there aren't any long, communal tables, and the music-free mood is relatively muted), but the restaurant's handsome, polished and welcoming atmosphere is leaps and bounds better than your average Flim Flam McGillicuddy's GoodThyme Emporium or Great American Classic Taco Y Burrito Company Limited.

My other source for scouting out Mango was my local friend Patrick, who spent a month in Peru two summers ago visiting his Uncle Pablo, a missionary priest in the city of Santa Rosa. Patrick immediately recognized the brightly colored woven sashes worn around the waists of the all-female waitstaff, noting that they're traditionally made from alpaca wool. While Peru is not a land of plenty, they've apparently got plenty of alpaca -- so many, in fact, that Patrick was surprised when alpaca did not appear on Mango's menu. Neither do sheep, goat or guinea pig, animals that he ate all the time down there. (If you're wondering, Patrick says that guinea pig tastes like squirrel.)

So Mango sticks to domestically familiar meats. Unaware of how logistically difficult it might be to find farm-raised alpaca in the Midwest, I'd tend not to find fault in this. And as for the guinea pig, well, that might not go over so well, considering there's a pet store in the same shopping plaza. Besides, whatever out-there edibles Mango may forsake are more than compensated for by the restaurant's simple-yet-satisfying fare.

Meals do begin with complimentary plates of cancha and plantain chips, both served warm. Two dips accompany the plantains: a kicky tomato-and-onion salsa and an appealing cilantro chutney. The cancha, though ostensibly prepared correctly, were too dry for my taste; if you're a Corn Nuts fan, though, you'll probably like them. The appetizers we ordered were tasty; I loved the pascualina, a slice of spinach pie similar to quiche but not as eggy, with a resonating spinach flavor and a delightful, moist, sesame-seed-encrusted casing. Also good is the papa rellena, a knish-like, large potato dumpling stuffed with ground beef, bell peppers and onions tartly offset by a small helping of a "red onion salsa" marinated in lemon juice, akin to a vinegary red-cabbage cole slaw. A great entrée to try is cau cau de pollo, cubed chicken breast and white rice mixed with a delicious blend of mint and turmeric, which gives the dish a flavor reminiscent of Indian cuisine.

I was initially disappointed to find that the ceviche, a cold-plate appetizer, employs the versatile-but-boring tilapia, but it wound up as one of my favorite dishes. The tilapia was robustly marinated in citrus juice. If it were any other fish, I'd probably consider it overdone, but here the treatment's necessary to put a little oomph into the meat. Add to that an unforgiving coating of cracked black pepper and a slap of lemon juice, and tilapia's never been this reckoning. I actually had to order a soda to cool my palate, especially after I tore my way through the side scoop of mashed sweet potato, so creamy and sweet I would have devoured it just as eagerly if it had been served in an ice cream cone.

A disappointing dish was the chicarron de pescado, a pointless appetizer of breaded and fried fish chunks that were far too greasy and served with a strange orange-yellow dipping sauce reminiscent of popcorn butter. And I wasn't a fan of the surprisingly bland seco de carne, a beef stew that somehow wasn't, given how little broth there was in the bowl.

Patrick has some great stories about drinking in Peru, which is one of those laid-back countries that takes its carousing so seriously it's got its own national cocktail -- the pisco sour, a froth-topped concoction whipped up with raw egg, sugar, lime juice and pisco, a heady brandy made from muscat grapes.

Mango's pisco sour is properly sweet and underhandedly potent, as is its cousin, the algarrobina, which forgoes the lime juice and winds up tasting more like eggnog. Two other libations-- the Casa Blanca (rum, triple sec, cherry liqueur and lime juice) and El Presidente (rum, lime juice, pineapple juice and grenadine) owe more to the Cuban mojito, which is also on the drink list. Throw in two Peruvian beers, Americanized "mangotinis" and "tango martinis" (why not just "tangotinis"?) and a decent wine list that smartly steers clear of Peruvian varietals (which are not so good) in favor of Chilean, Spanish and Argentinian bottles (between $20 and $36; try the pale-pink Muga rosado or the round-flavored Montes merlot), and Mango makes for a great offbeat drinking spot -- and a cool new option when dining south of the city border.

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