Café Limón 

Food Network Star in Our Midst: The fare at Café Limón is a winning reason for a Syracuse stopover.

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In 2008, Amparo Alam was crowned Grand Prize Winner of Food Network’s Ultimate Recipe Showdown, a TV cooking show hosted by the ubiquitous Guy Fieri. Alam’s rotisserie chicken with fried yucca root beat out all others in the nationwide recipe contest, and she walked away with a $25,000 prize and a Food Network cooking apron signed by Fieri. It hangs in her restaurant, Café Limón, located in Syracuse, a place you might only have occasion to pass through on the way to Antelope Island. But, you really should plan a jaunt to Syracuse for that delicious chicken, not to mention the other very tasty Peruvian-influenced dishes.

Café Limón is a small, unpretentious restaurant located next to a Smith’s grocery store, just a few minutes from the Antelope Drive exit on Interstate 15. It’s a family affair, where Alam is server and hostess, and husband Ron does most of the cooking, assisted by their teenage sons—Randy and Ronnie. Amparo Alam calls the family “half camel/half llama,” referring to the marriage of Ron’s Middle Eastern background and her own Peruvian one. The couple met and married in the Los Angeles area, where they both worked in restaurants—she as a server, he as a cook. When I asked how a guy from the Middle East and a gal from Peru ever wound up running a Peruvian restaurant in Syracuse, Utah, Ron Alam says, “We were looking for good, inexpensive schools for our kids. We had a friend who lived here and came to visit. We liked Syracuse, and picked up and moved from California.” Well, the Golden State’s loss is the Beehive’s gain.

The small eatery is drafty. You’ll want to leave your jacket or sweater on and choose a table away from the door, if possible. However, the warm service and hospitality of the Alam family quickly negates any chill in the air. Amparo Alam loves to talk about the food she serves and is happy to explain exotic ingredients and dishes like Peruvian aji chile, zarza criolla, salsa a la huancaina and lomo saltado. While getting the lowdown on Peruvian cuisine, I suggest tucking into a hefty appetizer of papa a la huancaina ($6.99). It’s a platter of steamed, sliced, golden-colored Peruvian potatoes bathed in a creamy, spicy cheese sauce. Since the Alams can’t find the Peruvian cheese traditionally used for this dish, they’ve reinvented the dish using a combination of queso fresca and two other cheeses locally available. This appetizer, like virtually everything on the menu, is served in abundant portions. The food isn’t light, nor are the servings skimpy. Plan your diet accordingly.

The cuisine is a mix of Peruvian and American fare, and the burgers in particular are worthy of your attention. The Peruvian Burger ($7.29) is a single patty topped with American cheese, bacon, a fried egg and spicy Peruvian “salsa” of thin-sliced red onions and aji chiles. It’s a damned delicious burger. One of our meat-loving teenagers, however, preferred the double cheeseburger ($8.29): two all-beef patties topped with American cheese, four thick slices of bacon and a homemade burger sauce. I have to admit that this, too, was a killer burger, thanks in part to the above-average bun— from a small, local bakery Amparo Alam uses, but I was sworn to secrecy: She probably doesn’t want the competition discovering these excellent burger buns. Burgers come with a choice of standard french fries (included) or not-so-standard thin, crisp yucca fries for $1.99. Spring for the yucca fries; they’re delicious.

Now, those big burgers sure would taste good with a cold beer. But, Ron Alam says he doesn’t wish to offend his largely LDS clientele by serving alcohol. So, a good beverage alternative is canned Inca Kola, a yellow-gold, lemon-verbena-flavored soda drink popular in South America.

Of course, you’ll certainly want to sample the award-winning signature dish at Café Limón, the Peruvian chicken ($10.99). It’s a plump, tender half-chicken, marinated before roasting in a zippy mélange of garlic, a Peruvian herb called huacatay, pepper, cumin, achiote, lime juice, aji chile, salt and pepper, and served with a heaping helping of yucca fries and both huancaina and aji sauces for dipping. The result is flavor that is subtle, but sensational.

Another interesting (and XXL-size) dish is “jumping beef” (lomo saltado). It’s a lot of food for $10.99: crisp, thin slices of beef stirfried with tomatoes, onions, aji chile and garnished with fresh, bright green minced parsley. It comes with both french fries and a large side of dry, slightly crunchy rice and beans—pinto beans both whole and mashed, mixed with white rice. I guarantee you’ll need a box to take home the leftovers.

“Amparo wanted to put everything on the menu,” says Ron Alam of his wife’s desire to serve items such as Peruvian ceviche. “But, I’d rather just do a few things really well.” Still, Café Limón does offer breakfast items all day long, including hot cakes, French toast, custom-built omelets, steak and eggs, and more. And there are sandwiches, also served all day. Options include a roast beef melt, grilled BLT, club sandwich, turkey stack and a selection of Peruvian sandwiches. The latter come with a choice of three Peruvian sauces: cheese, criolla or aji. The pan con lechon sandwich ($8.29) is terrific: slow-roasted, tender slices of roast pork, served on a grilled roll with your choice of sauce (I prefer the aji).

Frankly, I’m tired of television “celebrity” chefs. So, it’s wonderful to discover, at Café Limón, Food Network stars so warm and hospitable. They make a meal in Syracuse a must-do.

CAFE LIMON
973 W. 1700 South
Syracuse
801-825-0219

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