Fusion restaurant features the bold flavors of the “Southern Cone”
Peru is having a culinary moment. Last year, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy, which favors elite establishments, selected three honorees out of Lima — including Central Restaurante, coming in at number 6. Local Peruvian restaurateur Sergio Castro, an American Culinary Federation-certified chef with deep experience in the hospitality industry, brings plenty of cuisine from his native country to Cono Sur — a casual Latin-fusion restaurant in Mills River with an enthusiastic fan base.
With his Chilean friend and business partner Patricio Vera, who runs the front of house, Castro opened the reasonably priced restaurant one year ago — and already he can report regulars driving from up the road in Asheville and from as far down the mountain as Greenville, SC, and even Charlotte, two hours away. (Cono Sur means “Southern Cone,” referring to the southernmost countries of South America.)
Those who know the hallmarks of Peruvian cuisine — stews and stir fries led by the potato in all forms; legumes and raisins and wine infusions and sweet spices and plantains; a delightful fruit drink, Chicha Morada, that owes its festive color to purple corn — know they’re enjoying the real thing. “What we give people here, if they went to a hole-in-the wall restaurant in Lima, they’d be tasting the same thing,” says Castro.
For years, driving from Brevard to work in Asheville, the chef had his eye on the corner lot where Cono Sur now sits. “I always thought, ‘That would be a nice place to have something,’” he says. When the building came up for rent, he and Vera jumped on the opportunity and went to work, planning entrees from both their cultures, plus a few staples picked up during Castro’s time working in Miami, namely the popular Cuban sandwich with pork, swiss cheese, and pickles. Some dishes have an Asian influence: The Arroz Chaufa, complemented with sweet peas, eggs, fried rice, and green onions, is described as a “fusion of Chinese and Peruvian cultures.”
Bowls of mild salsa and lakes of melted cheese are notably absent. Castro notes that in Western North Carolina, south-of-the-border cuisine overwhelmingly translates to Mexican — and a broadly interpreted idea of Mexican, at that, one that’s been “marketed to American tastes.”
It’s different here. “We don’t water our recipes down,” he says.
On a recent Thursday night, the low-key restaurant — a relatively plain space with no whiff of hipster overload — was quietly hopping. The stream of patrons lining up at the counter had that “I’ve been here before and I know what I want” look. A list of daily specials was led by Picadillo, a staple from many Latin countries with a base of ground beef, tomatoes, raisins, and olives.
Besides the house Peruvian rotisserie chicken (Pollo a la Brasa), offered in halves and wholes as a takeaway item, and a surprise pizza option, the menu is packed with stout vernacular plates. Potatoes are boiled in some recipes, fried — “Patatas Fritas”— in others, including in the classic Lomo Saltado stir fry, which is sautéed beef tips in a red-wine sauce served with onions, peppers, and tomatoes over a bed of fries, with rice on the side. This combo yields the kind of savoriness that’s hard to actually savor — because “savor” implies slowness, and it’s so satisfying one wants to gobble with impunity.
The Aji D’Gallina, meanwhile, is a mix of shredded chicken with panka chiles and other spices in a creamy sauce topped with boiled eggs and tangy Botija olives on top. Those olives nicely sharpen the mildness of the overall flavor profile.
Appetizers include a daily soup (that day it was a wine-simmered potato-corn chowder), Peruvian “Papa a La Huincaína” — potatoes in a queso fresco sauce — and the promise of a stuffed avocado soon to be in season. Besides the Cuban sandwich, there’s also a Butifarra (slow-cooked pork in Peruvian spices on Portuguese bread), a Chorizo-and-fried-egg affair, and a Chacarero Chilean-beef sandwich, among others.
Alfajores (a type of cookie), flan, and chocolate-chip bread pudding anchor the regular dessert menu. However, the charmingly complicated Suspiro de Limeño, a caramel egg custard topped with port-infused meringue, made the specials board with good reason.
Castro tells the backstory: how, in the early 1900s, poet Jose Galvez was married to the “great chef Amparo Ayarez,” who invented the high-end pudding. Galvez was inspired by the dish’s delicacy, finding it as light and sweet as the sigh of a woman, hence Suspiro de Limeño (“the sigh of Lima”).
Really, though, the sigh is more of a moan. While the texture is sublime, the intensely rich flavor surely gets the last word.
Cono Sur, 4195 Haywood Road, Mills River. Open Monday through Thursday, 11am-8pm, Friday and Saturday 11am-9pm, and Sunday 12-7pm. For more information, call 828-513-1731 or see conosurasheville.com.