Patrons dine in at Lima Taverna  in Plano. (Jae S. Lee/The Dallas Morning News)

Patrons dine in at Lima Taverna  in Plano. (Jae S. Lee/The Dallas Morning News)

Jae S. Lee/Staff Photographer

Our city does not conceal its virtues. Dallas is bumptious, boastful and shiny -- and so is much of its dining scene. But spend serious time prowling around here and you will find hidden treasures, restaurants that are often little-known outside the immigrant communities whose nostalgia they soothe with the tastes of home. In less-sprawling cities these gems might be secreted in some twisty alleyway; here, they're plunked in nondescript strip malls off the rushing boulevards of North Dallas, Plano, Richardson or Irving.

A sweet and intriguing case in point: the 8-month-old Lima Taverna, a Peruvian restaurant tucked in the back of a small shopping center just south of Plano's Collin Creek Mall. It is an easily missed surprise in a stretch where the culinary offerings tend more toward Chick-fil-A and Dippin' Dots. But it is worth seeking out for a welcoming introduction to the varied cuisine of Peru, where indigenous Amerindian food has been layered with the influences of conquerors from Spain and immigrants from Italy, China, Japan and Africa.

Lima Taverna is clearly a labor of love. Eliseo Figueroa, the owner, came to Dallas from Peru by way of Washington, D.C., and is fiercely proud of his homeland's food and culture: He may launch into a tableside disquisition on the provenance of a certain drink or the virtues of a particular combination of spices. And his restaurant is the kind of place that charms the moment you step in. The comfortable, unpretentious dining room is paneled in glowing warm wood. Lights in the ceiling spell out words in Quechua, an indigenous language. Waiters bustle about in black vests. On one recent Saturday night, not one but two birthday parties were in train, helium balloons and all.

The thing to have in a Peruvian restaurant is, of course, ceviche. Lima Taverna offers a couple of intriguing versions of the Peruvian style, in which the seafood is flash-marinated in fresh-squeezed lime juice for just minutes before serving. The ceviche mixto is tart and terrific -- a generous serving of shimmering fresh white fish, which can be corvina or white bass, plus shrimp and calamari. Along with the lime juice, it's tossed with ginger, garlic and a Peruvian yellow pepper called aji limo, plus marinated red onion, cilantro and a slice of sweet potato. The dish gets added contrast and interest from a sprinkling of both boiled and toasted kernels of choclo, a starchy, creamy giant Peruvian corn. Another dandy ceviche is the fish in leche de tigre (tiger's milk) -- a spicier concoction of lime juice and milk spiked with more aji limo peppers.

Ceviche mixto features white fish, shrimp and calamari, tossed with lime juice, ginger, garlic, aji limo, onion and cilantro and accented by a slice of sweet potato and kernels of Peruvian corn.

Ceviche mixto features white fish, shrimp and calamari, tossed with lime juice, ginger, garlic, aji limo, onion and cilantro and accented by a slice of sweet potato and kernels of Peruvian corn.

Jae S. Lee/Staff Photographer

The other thing Peru is known for is potatoes (some 3,800 varieties are grown there). They make guest appearances here in several dishes, but star in two starters. One is the papa a la Huancaína, big chilled slices of potato covered in a creamy, slightly spicy sauce made from aji amarillo peppers, olive oil and milk. Even more unusual is the causa limeña, a tall cylindrical terrine of whipped potato layered with shredded chicken and topped with avocado and hard-boiled egg. It's fun to look at and surprisingly delicious. Another fine if more familiar appetizer is the cleanly fried empanada. The ground-beef filling has a subtle hum of hot spice with bright and sweet notes from olives and raisins.

Causa limeña is a delicious terrine of whipped potato layered with shredded chicken and topped with avocado and hard-boiled egg.

Causa limeña is a delicious terrine of whipped potato layered with shredded chicken and topped with avocado and hard-boiled egg.

Jae S. Lee/Staff Photographer

Lima Taverna's main dishes are homey and comforting, if somewhat uneven. The parihuela is a sort of an Andean bouillabaisse of fish, shrimp, calamari, scallops and mussels. They come swimming in a dark and savory fish-bone broth spiked with aji panca, a paste made from fruity, smoky dried peppers. More or less the same cast of sea creatures turns up, less successfully, in the jalea limeña, where they're breaded, fried, bland and dull. And the saltado de pollo, a Chinese-influenced stir-fry of chicken breast with onions and tomatoes, is decent if unremarkable. A better option is the seco de carne, a deep and rich beef stew with carrots and peas that tastes like something your grandmother might have made if she cooked with the Peruvian corn beer called chicha de jora and played fast and loose with cilantro. It comes with lovely, creamy canary beans. The roasted pork chop in the carapulcra con chuleta is deliciously browned, salty and porky. That would be the chuleta part. The carapulcra part, on the other hand -- a side dish made from sun-dried yellow potatoes and aji panca -- sounds a lot more interesting than its stodgy, starchy reality.

Leave room for dessert, because there's intrigue here, too: a flan made from the creamy, maple-y lucuma fruit baked with caramel; and alfajores, light shortbread cookies filled with Peruvian-style dulce de leche; and especially the picarones, crisp, tender doughnuts made from sweet potato and pumpkin drizzled with a sauce made from molasses, anise and cinnamon.

A dish of Picarones.

A dish of Picarones.

Jae S. Lee/Staff Photographer

True, the service can be a little awkward, and a couple of the plates may be less than fastidiously washed. The pyramid of white rice that comes with many dishes may be a little dried out sometimes. The wine and beer license is still pending. So no, Lima Taverna isn't flashy or fancy or flawless. But it's heartfelt and a little unusual and mostly mighty good. How can you not warm to that?

Mark Vamos is a journalism professor at Southern Methodist University.

Lima Taverna (2 stars)

Lima Taverna

Price: $$ (brunch main dishes $5.99-$13.99; lunch and dinner starters $5.99-$15.99; main dishes $13.99-$18.99; desserts $4.99-$7.99)

Service: Servers are sweet and friendly, though sometimes a little awkward or confused.

Ambience: The homey, comfortable dining room features stylish wood-paneled walls. Those words spelled out in lights on the ceiling? They're in Quechua, an indigenous South American language. The polished wood tables, decked with red napkins, are well-spaced.

Noise level: Low

Location: 621 W. Plano Parkway, Plano; 469-969-2034limataverna.com

Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Reservations: Accepted

Credit cards: All major

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Most recent health department inspection score: C (Aug. 29)

Alcohol: BYOB, no corkage fee

Ratings legend

5 stars: Extraordinary

4 stars: Excellent

3 stars: Very good

2 stars: Good

1 star: Fair

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