I may have mentioned somewhere before that I love Peruvian food. Really, really love it. As a kid living in L.A., we went out a lot to Peruvian restaurants, as it was the closest food to Bolivian (my family’s country) we could find a lot of the time. And for me, much as I love my people’s cuisine, Peruvian food edges out most Bolivian food by more than a nose (cue the ancestors turning in their graves).
I was never able to get to El Aji’s progenitor, Cholo Soy, as it is only open until 4:00 p.m. daily Chef/owner Yeral Caldas opened the tiny counter space in a mall at Mission and 19th Streets. He’d worked at restaurants around the City before deciding he wanted to open his own place. Luck, talent, a lot of hard work, some borrowed seed money, and determination to prepare his native land’s food won out, and he opened Cholo Soy in 2012, as previously reported by Mission Local here.
His success in the tiny, no frills space among local Peruvians, workers, and others propelled his dream of opening more restaurants, and El Aji came into being earlier this summer. I’d heard that what stood out at Cholo Soy was the spot-on freshness of Caldas’ ceviches – raw fish that has been “cooked” in lime juice. Happily, he’s brought that same pristine preparation of fish and seafood to El Aji. San Francisco has other cevicherias – the deluxe La Mar, for one – but I can honestly say I’ve found El Aji’s to be the best I’ve had.
El Aji is a much bigger space than Cholo Soy – it certainly could not have been smaller – but is also of simple, minimalistic décor. There are a few photo food prints of typical Peruvian chilies, purple corn, etc., and oversized kitschy forks and spoons hanging on the walls, instead of the usual Peruvian tchotchkes you might find at other Andean restaurants. Caldas is signaling that he’s all about the food. The lighting is unfortunate, however, as it is in most of our Latin American places – a bit too bright and harsh.
We started off our meal with a small bowl of complimentary cancha – a typical Andean snack of dried corn kernels that have been popped until toasty and then salted. They’re somewhat like corn nuts, only with a bit more of a starchy crunch. They’re totally addictive, so it’s a good thing the bowl they give you is small.
Next, we ordered the ceviche mixto – a mixture of Basa fish (a mild flavored white fish related to catfish), shrimp, calamari, and mussels. As is typical, the ceviche is accompanied by sweet potato, cancha and mote (hominy). The freshness of this dish blew me away. The delicate basa stood up to the acidity from the lime juice, or leche de tigre (tiger’s milk) as the sea-redolent, limey marinade is known, and the fish seemed to continue “curing” as you ate it. Tender morsels of mussels gave a bit of chew to the dish, with a bite and greenness from the slivered red onion and flecks of cilantro. The sweet potato seemed to have been marinated in the tart lime juice a while too, which played up its sweetness. Alongside was a spicy rocoto puree (an apple-shaped, South American chili with a heat level quite near the habanero range) that you could dab into the lime juice to kick things up.
A perfectly wonderful ceviche.
El Aji has no beer and wine license, so your choices for drinks are the treacly sweet (think liquid Juicy Fruit gum) Inca Cola, which I personally can’t stand, other sodas, juices (maracuya – passion fruit – and chicha morada – a purple corn drink, typical of the region), and sparkling water. This food would be great with an icy cold beer.
Next up was Papa a la Huancaina. Now, I have had a love affair with this dish since childhood. Bolivians have their own version, with a peanut sauce, but I like the Peruvian preparation better. A cold dish, the potatoes are boiled and then served with a yellow cheese sauce made with cottage cheese, evaporated milk, crackers, and aji Amarillo (another Andean chili, known for its yellow hue and medium heat, tempered by the creaminess of this dish). El Aji’s Papa a la Huancaina was the brightest yellow I’ve ever seen (they may have added turmeric to pop the color, but I couldn’t taste it), and a really great flavor – a bit spicy, yet cool. The portion was a bit small, but perhaps that’s because I never wanted the dish to end. This is dreamy, luscious comfort food and yet light, like a salad.
As it was here, Papa a la Huancaina is typically served over lettuce, with a slice of hard-boiled egg and an olive or two. I have to say this was perhaps the best rendition of this dish I’ve had. I was sorry there was no bread on the table, because I wanted to sop up every bit of that sauce. I’ve made this dish at home, and it is always good. But I can assure you it has never been this riotously yellow, and certainly not as scrumptious.
When I go to Peruvian restaurants, the heartier fare is usually not something I order; Peruvians do so well with their small plates and appetizers. Anticuchos, for one: beef heart (trust me) that has been marinated overnight in chilies and vinegar, sliced thinly and grilled, is a dish that makes me swoon when done right. It is pure Andean street food that nonetheless stands out as a delicacy for me. I asked if they would ever serve it at El Aji, and our server said yes, she thought so – and they are definitely going to add other items to the menu.
The BF ordered a seco de carne – a typical braised beef dish, very homey and tender. El Aji’s seems to have had a good deal of cilantro blended into the sauce as it had a distinct green tinge to it. This was served with boiled white rice and beans, neither of which, unfortunately, had much flavor (and I grew up eating plain white rice). As you can see, this rather humble dish doesn’t have the sex appeal that the ceviches or even the Huancaina dish has. Rather, it’s a stick-to-your ribs kind of dish like your Peruvian mom used to make. A little hot sauce helped a bit with the blandness.
Speaking of hot sauce, I was really surprised that there was no green aji on offer – the ubiquitous bright green salsa that comes with usually everything at most Peruvian places. It’s a wonderfully salty, creamy sauce made with aji Amarillo, jalapeños, and cilantro, among other things, that I would bathe in if allowed. I do hope El Aji adds it to their repertoire.
For my main I ordered the Aji de gallina – shredded chicken in a creamy yellow aji sauce, typically made with ground-up walnuts and parmesan cheese, served with boiled potatoes and rice (South Americans love doubling up on their carbs.) This dish, again, needed salt, or something, to make it stand out, and more heat. Aji amarillo isn’t a wimpy chili, by any means.
Again, this is rustic comfort food, but it just needed a bit more oomph.
On our next visit, we ordered another ceviche – Ceviche Chalaco. This one was made with just the delicately-fleshed basa fish but the lime marinade had aji Amarillo blended into it, for a really vibrant, spicier take. Again, we were really rather astounded at the blatant freshness of the dish – everything just sang.
The BF ordered Lomo saltado – which is basically a stir fry (there is a very large Chinese population and therefore influence in Peruvian food, known as chifa. For example arroz chaufa – which is on Aji’s menu – is basically Chinese fried rice.) Beef sirloin strips are marinated in soy sauce and vinegar, cooked over high heat with red onions, tomatoes, and parsley. It is typically served over white rice with French fries. My father would order lomo saltado anytime we had Peruvian food. It’s a dish I’ve taken a bite of at least 100 times over my lifetime. In all those years, I have never tasted this dish in which the meat wasn’t dry. (There’s a really great, high-end Peruvian place in Oakland that I absolutely love, and even their lomo saltado was a bit dry.) Maybe it’s the marinade, I don’t know. But a lot of people love this dish; it gets ordered all the time. The dish here at El Aji had nice flavor – that combination of red wine vinegar and soy is a good one – but again, dry.
Too bad, because it looks so good!
As my main, I ordered a causa de pollo. I would have ordered the crab causa, but the BF doesn’t like crab (I count myself fortunate that he loves ceviches). As it turned out, the causa was pretty small, but incredibly delicious, and beautiful, too. Causas are little terrines of cold mashed potato, layered with crab, chicken, or tuna, and often with olives, avocados, onions, and chilies. The potato is blended with lemon juice and aji amarillo, and the whole thing is a tangy, fresh and often piquant tower of cool beauty. The shredded chicken here was tender, and in a creamy mayonnaise sauce. A stunner of a dish.
I could easily have eaten two of these.
When I go back next, I will probably try the seco de cordero (lamb), just to try it, as it gets rave reviews, but most likely I will stick to the ceviches, the Papa a la Huancaina, the Papa Ocopa (another cold potato preparation with an Andean herb called Huacatay – somewhat similar to our mint), the black olive ceviche (whaaa? yes!), and the causas. Perhaps the mussels (choros a la chalaca). And pray for a menu addition of anticuchos. And beer!
Thank goodness for another Peruvian restaurant in the Mission, and for Señor Caldas wanting to open more.
3015 Mission Street
btw 26th & Cesar Chavez Streets
San Francisco, CA 94110