Casa Zoraya Enlivens North Lombard With Killer Peruvian Food

The best way to devour the traditional dishes is with a party somewhere in the four-to-six range.

One of Portland's best dining bargains sits on North Lombard Street, wedged between a mobile phone shop and a leather bar. Casa Zoraya offers delicious dishes with the high-quality ingredients and presentation of a stuffy westside restaurant, for significantly less than what it could charge closer in.

The Peruvian-focused eatery opened in May, a few months after the passing of family matriarch and cook Gloria, whose portrait overlooks the entryway. The space is crowded—I definitely recommend making a reservation—and still holds a "cheap eats" vibe and layout. It's not quite right for the family-style meals on offer, but the lack of pretension in the décor is a nice change from the usual Portland dinner scene. The small dining room and kitchen mean dishes come out as they're done, with multiple tables receiving the same dish at the same time.

The menu at Casa Zoraya isn't nearly as long as that at Andina, but it takes each dish seriously. While it's a nice place for a date, the best way to devour the traditional dishes is with a party somewhere in the four-to-six range. Items like ceviche de pescado ($23), with its fresh fish, lime sauce, onion, white corn and toasted maize, isn't quite a meal or an appetizer—it's a cold, crunchy dish that gets the tongue ready for more. On a recent visit, the fish of the day were marlin and salmon. The strong flavor of the marlin was perfect for the ceviche marinade. The salmon didn't really add anything, but its presence didn't detract from the dish either.

At Casa Zoraya, it's the ají chili that takes center stage and shows what can be done with chilies after hundreds of years of careful consideration. The ají adds a warm flavor to the ceviche and ají de gallina ($16) without being hot. Instead of overpowering the food, as chilies so often do, here they bring out the flavors of the other ingredients, lending the dishes a unique complexity. The ají de gallina—a creamy chicken stew—could have used a tiny bit of salt, but its mix of tender chicken and rice with a nutty, chili sauce is a perfect comfort food.

The standout dish at Casa Zoraya is the lomo saltado criollo ($20), a tender, stir-fried sirloin dish in a thick, flavorful sauce that's both spicy and sugary. With roots in Lima, lomo saltado criollo takes Chinese stir fry as its inspiration and melds it with local flavors. Like the Portuguese-Chinese fusion famous in Macau, the dish is totally Peruvian but not like anything else on the menu. If your group isn't into sharing, get this one for yourself and watch the others change their minds.

A close second to the lomo saltado criollo is the chicharron de puerco ($14), a dish of fried pork belly, sweet potato and huancaynas peruanas potatoes with a criolla sauce. The pork belly flakes into perfect-sized bites with just a fork, and the accompanying vegetables were seasoned and cooked perfectly. As with all Casa Zoraya's best dishes, the chicharron de puerco offers earthy flavors and a variety of textures.

The only dish I wouldn't recommend is the causa de camarón ($14), a very pretty potato, shrimp and avocado dish that lacked any distinction in flavor or texture. Next to the mixture of crisp and soft, tart and sweet of the ceviche, the causa de camarón left nothing to chew on. It wasn't bad, just fine—and next to the rest of the food, fine just doesn't stand out.

Accompanying all these great dishes are a small cocktail list of pisco sour variations, the Peruvian lemon verbena-flavored Inca Kola, a short wine list of local, South American and European wines, and the incredibly refreshing purple corn and fruit drink chicha morada ($4) that made the 90-degree heat wave at the time of our visit seemingly disappear.

North Lombard, a street dotted with dive bars, might not be the first place that comes to mind for a nice dinner, but a little high-low night out is perfectly Portland.

EAT: Casa Zoraya, 841 N Lombard St., 503-384-2455, 4-10 pm Monday-Saturday, 10 am-3 pm Sunday.