Smelly Pepper and Seafood You Can Drink
11060 16th Ave SW, 444-4747
Tues-Sun 10 am-9 pm.
There is nothing like getting a whole new genre of food to try--that's why I was so excited when El Chalan opened up this year. I know very little about the food of Peru: just that it is the home of ceviche (raw fish and other sea creatures "cooked" in lemon or lime juice and served up blissfully cold), that those purple potatoes are supposedly Peruvian, and that guinea pig, or cuy, is a Peruvian delicacy. "It's kind of oily," said my friend Jerry about the roasted rodent. I brought him along (and his girlfriend, Gina, and my husband, Andrew) for my trip to El Chalan, because Jerry was the closest I could get to an expert on Peruvian food, having dated a Peruvian woman for a stretch and having spent a few months in Cuzco.
There is no guinea pig on the menu at El Chalan, which has taken over a former Ezell's Fried Chicken down in White Center, and has not really rid itself of the fast-food feel of its predecessor (there is still a drive-in menu around back). But you know from the soccer playing on the dining-room TVs that this is no Southern-fried joint.
We started with a pitcher of chicha morada, a vermilion corn-based punch ($5.99). In Peru, apparently, chicha is a maize-based homebrew, but here the corn is innocently alcohol-free, and its corn-y flavor was neutralized by the purple punch's sugar, spice, and pineapple. As we drank we received some strips of puffy bread with two dips: a jalapeño-garlic-cilantro purée and a minced parsley and garlic combo. "It's a hamburger bun!" claimed Jerry. No, I argued--desperate for an authentically Peruvian meal--the bread was probably some kind of regional specialty, also sweet, also eggy, and also formed into a flattened dome. In truth, he was probably right, but at least the little dips were good and potent.
We tried a tamale ($4), which came topped with a slice of egg and an olive staring out from the too-crusty masa like a beady black eye. Jerry also steered us to a side of fried yucca stalks ($3), tender and creamy inside their crisp jackets, and some hominy-like corn, which was mild and not much else ($4.99).
"What's the leche de tigre?" I asked as we picked our entrées. Our petite and plucky waitress shook her head, guessing that it was not for us--it was some sort of extra-spicy seafood shooter. The tiger's milk sounded good, but I wasn't in the mood to drink my seafood, so we started with an ordinary mixed-seafood ceviche platter ($18), which arrived in a great pile, topped with more corn and sliced onions. The seafood itself was tender--purple-freckled tentacles of baby squid, tiny mussels, a few shrimp, and pieces of white fish--but the marinade was lackluster. It needed something more--chile, cilantro, garlic, maybe--to bring it to life. What it didn't lack was a whole bunch of white pepper--Jerry was the first to notice its odd smell. We all sniffed our forkfuls. White pepper tastes fine, but it has a smell that for some reason reminds me of gym socks--an odor that kind of killed the fresh, summery vibe that I hoped to get from my ceviche.
Continuing on our fishy way, we also got the pescado encebollado (white fish smothered in a mildly piquant onion/tomato sauce; $12), and our waitress' favorite, sudado de pescado (fried fish doused in a tangy sauce of puréed chiles; $12). Something about the sour chile aroma smelled just like Chinese food, but the flavor was tamer than the smell. Both dishes were pretty good, but I had gotten myself into a kind of exotic food pickle, wanting everything to taste more intensely than it did. In truth, it was reliable old pork that turned out to be the most delicious: tender ribs long stewed with sweet spices and a savory version of the chicha ($10). Served up with sloppy beans and rice, it went to show that it's hard to steer a good pig wrong.
As I crumbled my way through a dry alfajore, a caramel cookie ($2.50), I felt like I'd sampled just enough Peruvian cuisine to want to try it again, but next time, at someone's mother's house in Cuzco, or Lima, or even someone's mother's house down in White Center.