At El Sobrante's El Chalan, lomo saltado and aji de gallina share menu space with insalata caprese and pasta in marinara sauce. Yep, El Chalan doesn't just make Peruvian food but Italian as well. My dining companion set out to find out why.
"Are you Peruvian?" he asked our waiter.
"No, I'm from Honduras."
"Is the owner from Peru?"
"Is he Italian?"
"No, he used to work at an Italian restaurant," the waiter said.
The owner wasn't around, so Jeremy and I asked his wife about the Italian menu when she emerged from the kitchen. "Americans order the Italian food," she explained. "But the Peruvians only want their own food." Apparently, El Sobrante, like Oakland, has a large Peruvian community, but some of the non-Peruvian locals are still a little wary of this unfamiliar cuisine. They needn't worry: It's comfort food, plain and simple.
El Chalan refers to the skilled riders who dance with their horses. Aquiles Puga, who is not a chalan but who hails from Lima, and his wife, who's from Honduras, bought the restaurant one year ago. The tiny building had housed El Tumi, a Mexican-Peruvian restaurant, for the previous 22 years. The Pugas remodeled, ending up with a lovely little restaurant, friendly and inexpensive.
Most of the Peruvian appetizers will be familiar to anyone who's ever eaten at a Mexican restaurant: tamales, empanadas, ceviche. I loved every one of them. In fact, if I were to sneak back in, I think I'd make a tapas-style meal, because I had to pass up a couple of menu items and new delights appear on the specials board each day. One night's special was a baked empanada, a flaky half-moon stuffed with well-seasoned ground chicken and pork with flashes of sweet (raisins) and pungent (black olives, jaw-crackingly unpitted). One week later, the empanadas had disappeared, replaced by thick, soft -- but not loose -- tamales whose masa was enriched with chicken stock and spices. Shredded chicken, hard-boiled egg wedges, and a couple of black olives were threaded through the center of each.
But the ceviche de pescado was my favorite. In the Art of South American Cooking, Peru-born author Felipe Rojas Lombardi claims ceviche was invented in Peru. (Other sources suggest Ecuador, the Philippines, and the Mediterranean.) Peruvians throw a few interesting twists into this pan-American standard. In the center of El Chalan's version is a mound of tender whitefish -- not too "cooked" or acidic from the lemon juice -- mixed with chopped potatoes and freshly shaved red onions. The tart, tingly marinade, orange from pureed chiles, pooled around the fish, counteracted by a stolid chunk of boiled sweet potato, a half-cob of fresh corn, and a pile of toasted field corn. Every time I try Peruvian ceviche I spend half an hour trying to figure out the ideal flavor combination, but since I've never eaten it with Peruvians I'm never sure what blend of sweet, sour, crunchy, and bland I'm supposed to be composing on my fork. No matter, since the fish itself was exquisite.
Though their claim to having invented ceviche is suspect, by all accounts the Peruvians really did discover the potato. Archaeological evidence suggests that, although the tuber actually comes from the Chilean coast, indigenous Peruvians first cultivated it in the Andes nearly four thousand years ago. According to Florence Fabricant in The Great Potato Book, the Incas grew more than two hundred varieties, from pink to blue, tiny to immense, floury to starchy.
Needless to say, potatoes show up in almost every dish, on the side or front and center. The Peruvians make the Irish look like the upstart spud-lovers they are. For the appetizer called papas a la huancaina, thick cross-slices of boiled potato were sprinkled with a few black olives and a wedge of boiled egg, then smothered in a thick, pale-yellow cheese sauce made with an extremely mild cheese tinged with dried mustard. Very odd, we all said, and kept scooping up bits with our bread after the potatoes had gone.
Lomo saltado, meaning "sautéed [beef] loin," tastes like the British Betty Crocker's take on stir-fry. You slice up some steak, and then kick it around in the pan with onions, tomatoes, and a little garlic and chile, and then throw in a handful of French fries. And then you eat it over rice for that starch-on-starch effect. I ordered the dish just because it was famous, and then I ate every bite just because it was good.
But the most distinctive potato dish was the carapulcra, a fine, if simple, pork stew served with rice. Thick chunks of meat bobbed up here and there from a choppy brown sea of dried potatoes. Papas secas have been naturally freeze-dried for millennia by setting cooked potatoes out in the sun on cold days until the moisture evaporates. Reconstituted, they have a slightly nutty flavor and a chewy, al dente texture.
El Chalan offers a few cheap red and white wines, a few blond beers from all corners of the Americas, and Inka Kola, a fluorescent-yellow variation on cream soda -- you know, the red, cherry-bubblegum kind, not the comparatively natural-tasting vanilla sodas. The most distinctive drink on the menu is the chicha. Most versions of this corn beer are alcoholic, but Puga's spicy, unexpectedly fruity chicha is a deep-purple soda made by cooking blue corn in water with sugar, pineapple rinds, cloves, and cinnamon, then sprinkling in a little lemon.
The rest of the Peruvian entrées will appeal to the most conservative of palates. And the prices will appeal to the most conservative of wallets. There's a roasted half-chicken with fries. A deep-fried fillet of some whitefish, tasting a day past fresh, came with salad and fried potato rounds. And the aji de gallina, shredded chicken and -- here's a shock -- boiled potatoes, in a thick, mild sauce of yellow aji peppers, ground walnuts, and cream served over rice. Unfortunately, too much garlic overwhelmed all the other flavors in the sauce.
And on the dessert menu of an Italian-Peruvian restaurant? What else but flan and tiramisu. I had to run after both meals, so I picked up alfajores to eat in the car. Two cookies -- well, not cookies exactly, but slices of air captured inside the world's flakiest pastry -- enclose a smear of dulce de leche. Once filled, they're set out in a blizzard of powdered sugar until drifts form. After one alfajor, my black shirt had so many white specks down the front that I looked like I had a clinical case of dandruff. So I had a second cookie, just to make it look like the smears were part of the design.
Duty led us to order at least one of the Italian dishes: Prawns piccata, served with a side of penne in marinara sauce. My friend finished off the prawns, and they were certainly edible. But the gloopy white-wine-and-caper sauce was a little heavy on the garlic and even heavier on the flour. You could call the pasta al dente if you didn't have all your teeth, and the red sauce could have cut back on the sugar.
It confirmed what I suspected. There's a reason why El Chalan's Peruvian customers want the food of their homeland, and it's not just nostalgia.