The moment I read the description for choripapa, one of Cafe Valparaiso's appetizers, I knew I was going to like Chilean food.
Choripapa -- short for chorizo y papas -- translates into a small hill of crispy french fries tossed with quarter-sized coins of spicy sausage and caramelized onions. A rare opportunity to order not one, but two of my favorite indulgences, all in the name of research. I smeared forkfuls of the choripapa in ketchup and ají (ah-HEE), Chile's ubiquitous chile sauce, which could double for Chinese chile-garlic paste.
Cafe Valparaiso, the quirky little cafe in the La Peña Cultural Center, specializes in Chilean cuisine, with a little Peruvian, Cuban, and Brazilian added in. Don't let those names sweep you into tropical reverie: If you set aside the ají, it's all big mom food.
I'm not sure my mom could pronounce pastel de choclo, but it tastes like something she would have made on a chilly winter night. Though the Chilean national dish is often compared to a shepherd's pie, pastel de choclo is more closely related to the Midwestern baked tamale. It's a massive square of a thick, oven-browned casserole. The bottom layer is dominated by sugary caramelized onions, interspersed with chunks of beef, boneless chicken meat, halves of hard-boiled eggs, and the odd raisin and olive. They're covered in a soft, warm, semisweet pudding of ground fresh corn kernels.
The tamale-like nature of the pastel de choclo is about as close as you'll get to anything resembling Central American food. It always amazes me how, leaving Texas and traveling south, you encounter the cultural genius of Oaxaca's seven moles, millennia-old Mayan peasant food like pupusas, the equatorial African-European-Indian blending of Brazilian feijoada and xim-xim de galinha -- and at the bottom of the continent, good old red-state food. Meat. Potatoes. Meat and potatoes. And according to one friend who studied in Chile, lots of pizza and really bad pasta. It must be demographics at play: The vast majority of Chile's population traces its ancestry back to Spain, Germany, Croatia, France, and the Middle East.
Respecting its responsibilities as the Bay Area's only Chilean restaurant, Cafe Valparaiso doesn't tart up its food or Californianize it, but focuses on serving big portions of comfort food at student-friendly prices.
Its progenitor once comforted political refugees. Founded in the wake of the 1973 Pinochet coup by a group of Chilean exiles, La Peña Cultural Center has always incorporated a restaurant into its performance and meeting space. "In Chile, a peña means a gathering," says Mariola Fernandez, the center's house manager. "They're events where people gather around food and music." Someone plays guitar. Lots of red wine and cigarettes are consumed. And everyone talks politics.
After its start as a collective-run restaurant, the cafe separated from the cultural center. Over the past thirty years, it has continued to serve South American food under different names and different owners. The most recent owners, Pablo and Myrian Valenzuela, took over the space from La Peña (who had resumed control of it for several years), and named it after their home town in Chile. Many of their dishes are family recipes.
To cater to La Peña's before- and after-event crowds, Cafe Valparaiso sells a number of appetizers and salads for people in search of a glass of wine and a quick bite. Their specialties include empanadas, savory turnovers baked throughout South America. Valparaiso's plump half-moons, fluted around the edges, are made with a short crust that browns nicely and forms a crisp shell. Fillings, all simply seasoned but not bland, include mixed seafood and onions or con-con, shrimp with jack-style cheese. Salads range from the über-traditional ensalada chilena, thinly sliced onions and tomato wedges, to the ensalada mesoamericana, a pan-Latino mix of greens and vegetables with a mango dressing.
Without the aid of nostalgia, I didn't enjoy all the dishes at Valparaiso. My friend the former exchange student vetted the authenticity of the humita, Chile's take on the tamale. Basically the topping from the pastel de choclo, it consisted of ground corn wrapped in a corn husk and steamed. Without any filling or sauce, the soft, sweet pudding lost its charm after a couple of bites. I'd have traded a couple of humitas for my chupe, though. From its description it sounded like a seafood gratin. Indeed, it came in an oval gratin dish. But inside was a browned crust of Kraft Parmesan cheese, and underneath that crust, a mass of starch -- a thick paste of breadcrumbs and milk studded with small, overcooked bay scallops and calamari rings.
Two other seafood dishes fared much better. Mussels, tiny shrimp, squid, and chunks of fish crowded one another in the homey sope de mariscos. The opaque brown broth tasted like concentrated mussel liquor, braced by a squeeze of lemon juice. Valparaiso paid homage to Chile's Spanish ancestry with a classic interpretation of the paella: a gourmand-sized heap of saffron-scented rice, mussels, prawns, chorizo, and chicken. I wasn't impressed with the freshness of the shellfish -- you know that point when the sweetness subsides and the sea begins to assert itself? -- but the cooks had sautéed the sofrito of aromatics and tomatoes together until their flavors melded, and the rice had an al dente, lightly toasted texture.
And of course, beef comes with potatoes. The chacarero sandwich of sliced beef on a soft round roll was paired with french fries. The Chilean touch? Sliced green beans on top for a bit of crunch. The beef was fine, if a little dry -- I'm told that mayonnaise wouldn't have blasphemed tradition. The carne mechada, a straightforward, tasty beef stew with onions and tomatoes, came with a double-carb hit of fried potato chunks and white rice. Definitely mom food.
The service is friendly, but when the La Peña audience fills up the dining room, it gets bogged down. My friends and I arrived just before one late-night rush, but by the time we ordered we were immersed in the bilingual buzz of a full dining room and the staff had hit overload. The space between appetizers and entrées stretched past the thirty-minute mark. Water refills were hard to come by.
Desserts, both cold and warm, came quickly after we won our campaign to have dinner plates cleared. In general, Chile's pastries draw heavily from the country's German immigrants. You could taste their influence in the elaborate-looking, uncomplicated tasting torta mil hoja, layers upon layers of a phyllo-thin pastry stuck together with manjar and ground nuts. Manjar, a milk caramel commonly known in the States as dulce de leche, plays a prominent role in Chilean sweets. For a more potent dose, order the niño envuelto ("kid in a blanket"), a warm panqueque rolled around spoonfuls of the nutty, oozy manjar.
A couple of the cafe's younger customers, sporting Peruvian knit caps and Guatemalan sweaters they'd picked up on Telegraph, looked as if they longed for revolutions they'd never seen. The rest, like us, were content to simply gather around the table to drink red wine, eat hearty food and, of course, talk politics.
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