Building on the success of its sister restaurant in Newmarket, the new Inca in Ponsonby is bustling on a Saturday night, the many bright lanterns hanging from the ceiling beckoning passersby with their sunset glow. 

The menu is large and influenced by the blending of Peruvian and Japanese flavours, a cuisine known as Nikkei. This means you get a creative, flavour-rich line-up of dishes: maki and nigiri sushi, tiradito and sashimi, tempura and barbecue, tacos and tostada. Lots of fish, lots of clean, bright vegetable flavours, and plenty of crunch. 

It feels light and healthy, which is always nice when you are trying to sample as much as you can to get a sense of a place. The flipside of all this choice is analysis paralysis. We would have been better off choosing the set menu and letting chef Nic Watt (Masu, Akarana) and his team guide us through our meal. 

Like so many popular restaurants, Inca makes a virtue of sharing plates, and food comes to the table as soon as it’s ready. After the menu was explained to us and our drink orders taken, we watched waitstaff dart through the packed restaurant, leaving elegantly dressed plates in their wake. Presentation: A-plus. Margaritas: Excellent. Service: Variable. I suspect covid-related staff shortages played a part in the slightly rushed feeling that dominated our evening. And, to be fair, there were several big, jolly dining parties nearby requiring lots of attention. 

Inca Ponsonby's colourful interior. Photo: Babiche Martens/NZ Herald.


Guacamole ($16) made tableside has turned into an awkward cliché but in this case, I will allow it. The scent of coriander as the pestle smashed it into the mortar was fantastic and the server’s banter kept us occupied – no need to joke lamely about the price of avos. The corn chips brought a welcome spicy tang and the lemony kick of the guacamole was a puckery mouth cleanser. Most importantly, the chip-to-guac ratio was correct for heavy dippers. 

Next to arrive was my favourite dish of the night, the spicy tuna tostada ($22): raw tuna cut into perfect cubes, adorned with dabs of avocado, pickled red onion and the tiniest-imaginable red peppers, all served on an exceptionally crunchy tostada. Deliciosa. Happily, it bore no resemblance to the tostadas of my suburban California childhood, when a deep-fried masa shell shaped like a sofa would be stuffed with layers of beef, vegetables and cheese. The tuna was silky, the peppers sweet and the chilli mayo subtle enough to let the fish speak for itself. It was wonderful.

My husband’s star dish was the slow-cooked beef short ribs ($42), a true showstopper. The dry-aged beef was served with a yellow pepper miso glaze and a few bites of salad and some spiced cashews. The beef was smoky-sweet with a strong caramel flavour and a meltingly soft texture – it hardly needed to be chewed. 

By comparison, the “California fire roll” ($20) was a disappointment; although beautiful to look at, it lacked any fire whatsoever. King crab, allegedly spiced, was tucked inside a tight tube of white rice that had itself been rolled in tobiko roe (bright-orange flying-fish eggs) and topped with tiny dollops of avocado cream. The roe added a lovely textural snap to each bite but the dish had one flavour note: it was insistently salty. 

Slow-cooked beef short ribs. Photo: Babiche Martens/NZ Herald.


The chorizo-spiced pork potstickers ($19) were similarly underwhelming. Again, gorgeous to behold, each potsticker an intricately puckered little package of promise, but surprisingly bland to eat. For the life of us, we couldn’t taste the chorizo, and the black vinegar dipping sauce could only do so much to liven things up. 

After that, we needed something soft and sweet to end the evening, which is how we ended up sharing the delightful dark-chocolate fondant ($18). Like the guacamole, it arrived with a flourish of showmanship: a server grated a giant block of tonka bean cocoa truffle over it, creating a flurry of fine shavings. The fondant was accompanied by a scoop of sharp berry sorbet and crispy-chewy wafers studded with hazelnut. 

It was a strong finish to a rather uneven meal. Having read rave reviews of Inca, and given Nic Watt’s track record, I expected more from our visit. I am willing to lay 40% of the blame on covid and its disastrous wake – supply-chain issues, staff shortages and the rest. I am also more than willing to give Inca another try, because the good parts of our meal were exceptional. I would return for the spicy tuna tostada alone.

Menu: Sharing menu, with dishes ranging in price from $6 (oyster sashimi) to $58 (ceviche and sashimi selection).
9 Richmond Rd, Ponsonby, Auckland.
Friday to Sunday noon to 2.30pm; Monday to Sunday 5pm till late.