Restaurant Review - Of land and sea

Peruvian-Colombian Costa Verde expands your horizons with unique takes on beef and seafood

I thought it was a miracle of notable proportions when Costa Verde celebrated its first anniversary four years ago. A parade of restaurants had come and gone in its brick shopping center location, and there were a couple of things about the place that were less than promising. There was no telephone, for one thing. There wasn’t always a printed menu. Hours were iffy; sometimes the restaurant was open, sometimes it wasn’t, and there was never a discernable pattern to the hours of operation. Minor details like that. In fact, the only thing that didn’t seem a little shaky was the food.

Wonder of wonders, Costa Verde is now in its fifth year of business. There is a telephone. And it will be answered when you call the number, which is actually listed in the telephone directory now. There is a spiffy printed menu — complete with descriptions in English — encased in plastic folders. Posted hours of operation are accurate. The interior decor has been upgraded. Dingy old walls have disappeared behind faux brick paneling; the original cheap wood paneling has been painted pale salmon. Where once there was no accommodation for non-smokers in the small, hot dining room, Costa Verde is now smoke-free. And ceiling fans keep a pleasant hum as they gently cool the premises. Colorful fabric fish are suspended from the ceiling and posters of Ecuador and the Andes line the walls. Best of all, the food is as good as ever.

Better, in fact.

Costa Verde is a star even along Buford Highway, a mecca for anyone who loves good ethnic food and the grand cultural experiences that go along with it. Not only are the prices incredibly low, considering the quality of the ingredients and the size of the portions, but the fare is unique: a mix of Peruvian and Colombian. You need to try some of each — the hearty, earthy beef and chicken dishes of the highlands and the seafood specialties of the coastline — to fully appreciate what Costa Verde’s kitchen is doing.

Settle into one of the booths or tables — 14 in all, draped with embossed ivory vinyl table coverings — and join happy Hispanic families for some unusual and tasty food.

At the top of my list of favorite appetizers is papa la huancaina, cold, sliced boiled potatoes in a delightfully savory sauce of cheese and onions. Don’t think about how odd this sounds, just try it.

Costa Verde’s menu is loaded with dishes like this, improbable-sounding combinations — mashed potato ball stuffed with chicken or tuna, for instance, or anticucho, a cow heart kabob — that turn out to be culinary wonders. Everything is worth trying once.

You can never go wrong with the soup of the day, particularly if it’s sopo de pollo, chicken soup. The substantial broth alone is worth eating. But that isn’t all there is to it; there’s a chunk of corn on the cob, carrots, celery and, in the latest serving I got, an entire chicken thigh. Spritz it all with the accompanying wedge of lime.

I’ve decided that the reason there are so few chicken entrees on the Costa Verde menu is that the kitchen is using as much fowl as possible to produce the rich chicken soup broth. If you want chicken, you’ll be more than happy with a juicy rotisserie bird or chicken marinated in milk, moist as can be. The selection of beef dishes — a category that also includes marinated goat meat — is larger. But meat and potatoes isn’t so predictable here, as is proved by a platter of slow-roasted beef in a hot green sauce; pieces of tripe with cubed potatoes; or bandeja paisa, a thin steak with poached eggs, rice, kidney beans, fried pork and plantains.

Delicious as all these things are, it is the seafood that shines here, from the appetizers and soups to the ceviches and hot entrees. I am never disappointed with seafood soup cocktail (with coconut milk) or whole fried tilapia. The marvelous ceviche for two is a steal at $15, given the scads of blue crab, mussels, shrimp, octopus and fish, not to mention the corn, potatoes and sweet potatoes it comes with. Fish stew, pescado sudado, is divine, with its tomato-laced broth flecked with cilantro and red onions, its chunks of white fish and its tart, lemony aftertaste.

Shellfish in any given combination can vary from the menu’s descriptions. Sudado de mariscos, for instance, calls for steamed shrimp, squid, mussels and grouper but has been known to include scallops instead of mussels. That’s a good sign. It means that the kitchen uses ingredients that are at their best. There are plenty of higher-priced restaurants in town that could benefit from Costa Verde’s example.