When Peruvian cuisine comes to mind, instinct tends to bring images of pollo a la brasa or lomo saltado to the forefront. In mainstream America, these would be the two dishes that claim to be the ultimate contribution from Peru. And it’s easy to see why: the charcoaled smokiness of Peruvian chicken is a flavor known to many, and a meal would hardly break the bank. Lomo saltado, too, is famous as the “steak frites” of the Peruvian palate. But what many people don’t realize is that Peruvian cuisine, despite its heavy influence from Spain, is even more so varied in its tastes and flavors. And it’s not just a meticulous mesh of native & Hispanic tangs and textures, but – surprisingly enough – the Peruvian epicurean line also boasts an impact from the Far East.
While Filipinos form the oldest ethnic Asian group in Peru, it is the Chinese and Japanese who have impacted Peruvian cuisine more heavily. Because of The Philippines’ common influence from Spain, their assimilation into Peruvian culture was more organic then that of their Chinese and Japanese counterparts. But what spurned from this was a beautiful collision of gastronomic flavors that forge a culinary experience that’s like no other.
In the DC area, there’s no better place to take this experience head-on than José Andrés’ China Chilcano, which has recently opened in the Penn Quarter neighborhood. Literally just a few feet from the James Beard Award winner’s downtown location of Jaleo, China Chilcano brings Asian-Latin fusion to a whole new level. It blends the syncretic Criollo (mixture of indigenous, Spanish and African elements) palate with the much-evolved Chifa (Chinese) and Nikkei (Japanese) styles of cooking.
Because many of the native ingredients for Chinese and Japanese cooking were lacking in the new world, adaptation became key to moving forward. So elements native to the landscape of Peru substituted for some of the things that were found only in Asia. This progression is evident in China Chilcano’s super varied menu. From small plates and skewers, to larger plates and bowls, there is no shortage of things to indulge in.
On a recent visit with friends, there was a clear standout: Sánguche de Chancho Nipón –a diminutive “sandwich” of sorts made up of fried pork belly, pickled daikon, sweet potato, miso, ají limo (pepper) and hoisin sauce wrapped in a fried lotus steam bun. Found on the restaurant’s Dim Sum menu, this little bite packs many flavorful punches. Personally, I can still imagine the taste and texture as if it were yesterday. Equally delicious was the Unagi –one of three Causagiris offered on the dinner menu. Causagiri is a portmanteau of Japanese “nigiri” and Peruvian “Causa,” which is more or less a potato mash made up of several ingredients and spices. The Unagi “roll” is made up of BBQ eel and hot mustard over NOT sushi rice, but Okinawa purple potato causa. It definitely was a different take on traditional nigiri (rolls), and the causa provided a different kind of texture. But flavor-wise, it was on point. To round out the starters, my friends and I also indulged in Chifles Chiferos con Salsa (fried plantains and lotus root chips served with a sweet-potato-rocoto sauce).
The main dishes were quite varied, and all very good. One of my friends is vegetarian, and was happy about some of the offerings on the menu. She found the Aeropuerto (fried rice, egg noodle, crisp sweet potato, 20 vegetables, soy sprouts) to be very tasty, and was quite happy with her choice. And the sentiment seemed to be the consensus all around: one friend with the Ají de Gallina (chicken stewed in ají Amarillo with botija olives, fresh cheese, pecans and rice), another with the Concolón (crispy fried rice pot with pork belly, Nikkei broth, pickled turnips, egg, lap chong sausage, shiitake mushroom, bok choy and sriracha) –which reminded us of dolsot bibimbap, and my dish – the Peruvian staple, Lomo Saltado, which had a “Chinese” twist (prime strip steak served with tomatoes, soy sauce, shishito peppers, ginger, shoestring potatoes and a side of rice). Each dish was pretty excellent.
China Chilcano’s lomo saltado (Photo cred: Laura Hayes/Thrillest)
And while we probably didn’t need it, the four of us ended up sharing a dessert for good measure (and less calories!). We opted for the Ponderaciones de Kiwicha –a dish that we saw other parties ordering throughout the night. Made of a very eye-catching crispy fried spiral cookie, the dish is flanked by chocolate cream, bananas and Algarrobina ice cream.
China Chilcano also serves up some interesting cocktails, beers, wines and even sake. And the restaurant also claims to have the area’s prime selection of piscos – Peru’s specialty. And for the non-alcoholically inclined, don’t fret. There are a couple of options for you, too. In fact, I enjoyed the Agua de Loco – a “water”-based drink that’s supposedly known for “giving clarity to a crazy man.” Not sure how much of my own crazy this drink saved me from, but the apple and cinnamon-flavored water was light and refreshing.
The restaurant sparks with an extremely upbeat energy. This is evident in the color scheme that flows throughout the restaurant, and the varying table sizes, booths, and room configurations dotting the space. Bright reds and yellows dominate the color palate, but are complemented with spots of other colors which set both a warm and inviting tone. Like its sister restaurants, Jaleo and Zaytinya, China Chilcano is perfect for groups, and evokes a very social spirit. That night we were there, Andrés was in-house milling about and engaging with guests in the dining room and at the bar; a nice local “celeb” sighting for us.
Andrés’ DC restaurant empire continues to expand, and it’s pretty clear that China Chilcano will be a winner.
418 7th Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
(Additional photo credits: Rina Rapuano/Zagat for dining room image, and cookedindineout.com for the featured image)