It’s easy to pass El Tule by at 49 N. Main St. in Lambertville — the restaurant front is attractive but subdued, and the spinning red, white and blue pole display outside of Joe’s barbershop draws the eye.
El Tule has a lovely outdoor courtyard where I’ve enjoyed dinner at previous restaurants, but I hadn’t realized that El Tule has survived and drawn a following over the past six years, and has a sister restaurant, Quinoa, in Doylestown. More interesting is that while billing itself as a Mexican/Peruvian restaurant, this place bears little resemblance to any of the excellent Mexican eateries around.
It’s more of an instant Peruvian cultural immersion, where traditional cuisine meets modern fusion, all served up by friendly, low-key relatives. In fact, everyone at El Tule seems related to someone else working there. The chef, originally from Mexico, is the brother-in-law of owner Jack Egoavil, whose extended family keeps El Tule going and homey.
Says Egoavil, “It was hard at first, but we’ve had a really good response from people, and we’re grateful.”
While the decor, music and staff seem straight out of the Andes, don’t be fooled — the Mexican portion of the menu may serve as a familiar reference point for those new to Peruvian cooking, but it’s fresh, for real, and on-target.
Take the Guacamole: typically involving a simple recipe, good guacamole is not hard to find in our area (Blue Tortilla in New Hope comes to mind), but at El Tule, it was smooth and scrumptious, without overuse of garlic, pepper, or onions, and sporting a seemingly random tuft of fresh-cut cilantro. Put simply, they nailed it.
Likewise, the Ceviche alone would have been worth the trip. If you’re new to ceviche, think South American sushi. Without going into a history lesson, there was a huge Chinese and Japanese influx into Peru in the 1800s, and while their numbers today are relatively small, their influence on Peruvian cuisine remains oversized. In fact, at its best, Peruvian cooking is the original fusion cuisine, combining the best of South American and Asian food.
Ceviche is popular in every country in Latin America where there’s a beach. Usually made from fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices and chile pepper, in Peru it’s an art form and national treasure. Peruvian ceviche usually combines chunks of fish marinated in freshly squeezed lime juice with onions, chiles, corn and sweet potato.
At El Tule, these ingredients all make an appearance in their multiple versions of ceviche, but our variety, Ceviche Caratillero (“foodtruck ceviche”) saw the classic corvina fish topped off with fresh, flash-fried calamari. The fish was reminiscent of fresh sushimi, with a delicate, but firm, texture and an ever-present, almost ethereal presence of lime. It was the best ceviche I’ve ever eaten, hands-down.
The Palta a La Reina was another standout appetizer. It’s made by filling an avocado with either shrimp, chicken or vegetables marinated with fresh cilantro-lime dressing, and served with red onions and tomatoes.
The Yuquitas Fritas with Huancaina Cream was a favorite, as well. Yucca is a common staple of Caribbean and Latin American cooking, and more often than not may be served up on the bland and overcooked side.
Our Yuquitas were essentially yucca french fries, served with a natural Andean cream made from milk, cheese and yellow peppers. Pommes frites, Peruvian-style — so tasty that they disappeared quickly.
We also tried the traditional Chicha Morada beverage made from corn with pineapple and apple peel. It was a beautiful bright purple color, fruity and crisp.
The first entree we sampled was Aji de Gallina — shredded chicken in a creamy bright yellow pepper sauce served over slices of baked potatoes and white rice. It was tasty but not memorable for me, but my companion found it strangely comforting, with enough of a pepper edge to keep it all interesting.