Restaurant Review: Inca Social
Dig into Peruvian ceviche, causa, empanadas and pisco sours at this Rosslyn hot spot.
It’s a Thursday evening and Inca Social is hopping. The 18-seat cocktail bar is packed as two mixologists crank out margaritas and various riffs on Peru’s signature quaff, the pisco sour. A dozen more diners gab away alongside the ceviche bar, where a cook tosses cubes of raw mahi-mahi with leche de tigre (a “tiger’s milk” marinade of lime juice, fish stock and chilies), diced sweet potato, corn nuts, cilantro and red onions. Servers negotiate the narrow passages between tables to gather and sing “Happy Birthday” to one raucous party of 10, and then another.
This vivacious spot, which debuted in December in the former Kona Grill space in Rosslyn, is the second location of Inca Social. Co-owners Fito Garcia and Augusto Campo opened the first one next to the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station in 2019. They brought on Peruvian chef Michael Ciuffardi as a partner one year later.
The overall concept is Garcia’s baby. Born in Puerto Rico to Peruvian parents, he and his family lived in Peru and Mexico before settling in Oakton when Garcia was 7. After earning a business degree in marketing from George Mason University, he became a partner in various ventures, including Courthaus Social in Arlington and High Side, an Asian street food and craft-beer bar in Fairfax, which he still co-owns.
The flagship Inca Social fulfilled Garcia’s longtime desire to open a Peruvian restaurant, but the second one was more happenstance. “We were looking to do a Peruvian chicken place [in Arlington],” he says, “and looked at Kona Grill while looking at another space. The chef fell in love with the large kitchen.”
Spanning 7,600 square feet, the Rosslyn eatery isn’t just massive—with seating for 193 inside, plus another 40 in a private dining room and 90 on the patio—it triggers sensory overload. Designed by Jennifer Neyra of Uncommon Interiors in Ashburn, the dining room features shimmery silver-tiled pillars, a faux cherry tree backlit in purple neon, and aquamarine neon creatures evoking the glyphs that originated in Peru’s Nazca desert some 2,000 years ago.
A nook near the host stand is lavishly festooned with plastic flora—boxwood, wisteria, cherry blossoms, eucalyptus—and two pink-cushioned swings, plus a neon sign with the greeting, Hola, Mi Amor. Selfies, anyone?
Peruvian cooking is inherently fusion, bringing indigenous ingredients to a nexus of several culinary traditions. Among them: Spanish (criollo cooking is the Latin American interpretation of Spanish food); Japanese (known in Peru as Nikkei); and Chinese (called chifa). The latter two were introduced when Japanese and Chinese workers, many of them indentured, immigrated to Peru in the mid-19th century after slavery was abolished there.
Raw fish figures prominently, given that Peru has 1,500 miles of Pacific coastline. Try the sampler of three fish and/or shrimp ceviches, all of which are marinated in leche de tigre. One tosses in rocoto (a spicy red pepper) cream; another brings the heat with a hit of aji amarillo, a fruity yellow pepper that is a mainstay of Peruvian cooking.
Ordering causa (potato terrine) is another must at any Peruvian restaurant. I’m referring to savory little stacks of whipped potatoes, which are flavored with lime juice and aji amarillo and topped with various fillings. Here, diners can specify whether they want their causa cold or deep-fried (cold is the way to go), and choose among seven different variations, such as shrimp or veggies. My chicken causa was unremarkable, but the one crowned with poached octopus in purplish-black olive aioli was quite flavorful and dramatic. Dollops of avocado sauce and aji mustard sauce add extra pops of color and zing.
Unlike its sister restaurant in Merrifield, which has a smaller space and menu, Inca Social Rosslyn offers 11 sushi rolls in full or half orders. I sampled several, including variations featuring fried shrimp, avocado, cream cheese and salmon. All of the rolls come with mayonnaise-based sauces, but I couldn’t get beyond the sweetness of the rice and its oversoft texture. A better choice is the Nikkei tacos—crispy flour tortilla shells filled with avocado purée and tuna tartare dressed with sesame oil, soy sauce and ginger—which are terrific.
Other pleasing small plates include empanadas stuffed with beef, carrots, peas and raisins; a braised chicken tamale with black olives and hard-boiled egg; and anticuchos—skewers of grilled beef heart, chicken or shrimp (I can attest to the chicken) served with roasted potatoes, corn and chimichurri. Chilled mussels on the half shell suffered from over-marination in their tomato-onion salsa.
During one visit, the fish of the day (mahi-mahi) with mussels, shrimp, calamari and octopus had just the right amount of heat, courtesy of a red-chili sauce, to complement the seafood without overwhelming it.
Inca Social’s version of the staple dish aji de gallina, a fricassee of chicken in aji amarillo cream sauce, is billed as a stew, but was more the texture of chicken salad. It was nevertheless hearty and pleasant. The chaufa aeropuerto—fried rice with spring onions, snow peas, red peppers, scrambled egg and fried wonton strips (order it with chicken, steak or seafood)—is a tasty nod to Chinese influences in Peruvian cooking.
For dessert, spoon into the velvety caramel custard infused with lucuma, a fruit that looks like a large lime but whose fibrous yellow flesh has hints of sweet potato and maple. The tres leches cake is moist and nicely heavy on the dulce de leche.
Inca Social is a kinetic, happening, fun place. Just be warned that the atmosphere is noisy, especially when the booze is flowing. On one visit, my Decibel X app registered 91 decibels, “just below pneumatic drill.”
If a quieter experience is more your style, go for lunch, which offers the same menu as dinner but with a bonus 20% off all food items until 3 p.m.
What to Drink
When in a Peruvian restaurant, it’s fitting to order that country’s signature cocktail—a sour made with lime juice, sugar syrup and pisco, a Peruvian brandy made from distilled grape wine. Inca Social offers six variations of the drink (passion fruit, strawberry and mango among the flavors), all topped with egg white foam and bitters. Pisco, tequila and rum are the main spirits in the remaining 10 cocktails. Vodka and peach schnapps add an extra wallop to sangria laced with passion fruit juice. On Thursdays, margaritas are $5 all day; $2 for ladies during happy hour (3 to 7 p.m.). Cocktails range from $9 to $12.
Four red wines and four white wines are available by the glass and bottle ($8/$24 to $9/$45).
The 10 draft beers ($6 to $8) include Pacifico, Negra Modelo and Modelo Especial.
1776 Wilson Blvd., Unit #1
(Rosslyn City Center), Arlington
571-312-7664 | incasocial.com
Sunday to Wednesday: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight
Street or garage parking nearby. The Rosslyn Metro station is three blocks away.
Appetizers: $8 to $18; Entrées: $14 to $25; Desserts: $7