Pucker up: Lima delivers Latin American flavors – and lime

Sometime after the lunch rush but before the last meeting or legal compromise is done for the day, Lima’s outdoor lounge emerges, turning a normal storefront on one of downtown Washington’s busiest streets into a beachy, living room-like atmosphere that screams, “Come sit here.” And once the establishment gets you there, it keeps you, offering tropical drinks for a breezy happy hour but following those up with a full restaurant menu for a satisfying dinner. Don’t be surprised if what was supposed to be a one-tumbler affair turns into a several-course meal.

With the cocktails strong, the food flavorful and the setting fancy-free, Lima provides a new setting for that much-anticipated post-work drink when a bucket of $1 longnecks just won’t do.

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Lima means “lime” in Spanish, but it also should loosely translate to “mojito,” based on the number of pitchers of mint leaves and lime wedges scattered around the sage-colored patio furniture. Judging by the crowds of people gathered around those pitchers, Lima is no secret. A hint of sunlight after work seems to be enough motivation to fill the couches almost instantly. Outdoor seating is first-come, first-served, so if you are lucky enough to get a seat, be prepared for eager patrons ready to pounce should you show any signs of leaving.

Happy-hour specials bring you $7 mojitos and $5 mixed cocktails. In case the traditional mint-lime-rum concoction won’t suffice, try a mango, strawberry, blueberry or passion fruit mojito (warning: These drinks are almost exceedingly sweet). Food specials include a $5 empanada and $5 arepas with guacamole.

The empanada, which exists in different forms and fashions in nearly every Latin American country, has a finely ground beef filling and a spicy and oniony flavor that is almost chili-like. It’s medium-sized and accompanied by a thin avocado sauce.

The arepas, typical Colombian and Venezuelan street fare, are two fried, slider-sized cornmeal-and-cheese pancakes. Lima’s arepas could be a bit crisper, but they arrive warm and have a subtle, salty-sweet flavor from the corn. These are rich and filling on their own — a good thing, considering the accompanying guacamole adds little heft to the dish.

If fancy bar snacks are not quite enough to satisfy, head inside to the three-story restaurant and lounge, which has a modern design and a nightclub feel. Latin music plays softly in the background but doesn’t impede diners’ ability to carry on a conversation.

As for the food, Lima takes its lime theme to new heights. Even the butter that accompanies the house rolls comes flecked with lime zest.

A sure-bet appetizer is the salmon-chipotle ceviche. It has a great smoky flavor that lives up to its name, but strong lime and onion flavors come through, too. The fish chunks — not quite sushi raw, but definitely not cooked — are both tender and meaty, making for a satisfying starter. My dining companion and I ordered a ceviche sampler, but the crab-avocado and tuna-ginger variations fell short of our expectations (mostly because of a paucity of key ingredients, namely avocado and ginger, respectively).

Meanwhile, the mussels come in a broth of cilantro, leeks and the ever-present lime. The broth has a strong wine flavor but could have used some salt to draw out more of the varied flavors. The mussels, however, are very large and tasty.

For the main entrée our attentive waiter sold us on the cashew- and cilantro-crusted sea bass and the restaurant’s signature churrasco, a grilled flat-iron steak. We were happy we followed his advice.

The sea bass gives a memorable first impression: It’s a large chunk of meaty white fish. The slight crunch of the cashew-and-cilantro crust provides a welcome contrast to the smooth flesh of the bass. It’s not a Rice Krispies crunch, but you can taste the cashews enough to remind you that nuts are a part of the concoction. The fish comes with an unremarkable side of fingerling potatoes layered on top of a bean-based sauce.

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The churrasco is the winner dish. The meat arrives cooked medium, as ordered, and the combination of the meat’s marinade and seasonings along with the accompanying chimichurri sauce creates a Latin flavor explosion. Garlic, parsley, cumin, cilantro, lime — they’re all there. The side of steamed rice even has a bit of a kick, and the grilled vegetables are a welcome bite to put out some of the fire. It’s easy to tell why Lima lists the dish as one of its best.

The final course brings another staple of Latin American street cuisine. For dessert, fried churros come out with a chocolate sauce and a dish of lime-flavored sugar syrup. The doughnuts are short, skinny fried sticks rolled in sugar. Instinct suggests chocolate sauce will be the best enhancer, but the lime syrup creates a salty-sweet combination that refreshes the palate.

Lima turns into a nightclub later in the evening, meaning a lime-infused escape is available nearly any time of day.