Tuesday, May 18, 2010

El Chalan Review

For most of us in the DC area, when we think of Peruvian food we tend to think of the dozens of fantastic Peruvian chicken places like El Pollo Ricco.  However, there is so much more to Peruvian food then just chicken and El Chalan proves that in many ways.

Located in a small basement row house on the border of the Foggy Bottom and Golden Triangle neighborhoods, El Chalan seems to cater mostly to regulars and Peruvian ex-pats who are craving the taste of their homeland.  The restaurant is small, but cozy.  On busy nights it can get quite loud, but on slower nights, it is a nice relaxing place to be.  The service can be hit and miss depending how crowded it is, as they usually have only two servers.  On my last visit, despite the place being packed, we got our food pretty quickly from a very attentive waiter, who even when busy was able to see me signaling him across the room for more beers. 
Before I get to the food, I have to confess that I am a little bias.  Next to Japanese food, I think Peruvian food is the most diverse and flavorful food in the world, so it is no surprise that I loved the food at El Chalan.  On my last visit, our group started with two appetizers.  The first was the Ceviche Mixto which consisted of fish, squid, shrimp, and mussel.  While Ceviche is a now a very popular food with many Latin American countries with their own unique spin on the dish, it is Peru (though some argue Equador) where it all started.  At El Chalan the preparation is uniquely Peruvian.  Fresh seafood marinated in lime juice served with cooked sweat potato, corn and onions.  It is simple, yet the taste can’t be beat.  The only issue I had with the ceviche had nothing to do with the fish, it was the disappointment that they clearly used corn out of a can instead of the larger fresh corn you would find in Peru .  Next we ordered the Anticuchos El Chalan, which is simply marinated beef hearts (first picture below) grilled to perfection.  If you can get over the fact that you are eating heart, I can assure you that you will love the Antichuchus.  It can best be compared to thinly sliced cut of beef, which is marinated and seared to perfection.  Again, I know it might be hard to get over the fact you are eating heart (my girlfriend refused to eat it) but you will regret it if you do not give it a shot. 
 We next moved on to the main courses which did not let down either.  My personal favorite was the Arroz a La Chiclayana (chicken and rice), which is very similar to an arroz con pollo that you would find in any Cuban restaurant.  Being born and raised in Miami , arroz con pollo was a staple in my diet.  The Arroz a La Chiclayna at El Chalan had the same flavorful rice, and moist chicken that I am used to in chicken and rice dishes.  However, this dish differentiates itself from the Cuban version by relying on a heavy dose of cilantro which adds a wonderful flavor along with a unique green color.   
The Cabrito Norteno consisted of perfectly cooked, fall off the bone, goat served in a beer based stew.  On the really lucky bites, you can get just the right combination of meat and fat that just melts in your mouth.  The Lomo Saltado is another reliable, but slightly bland, choice served at El Chalan.  Lomo Saltado is another dish that many Latin American restaurants serve (especially El Salvadorian), yet once again it is a Peruvian originated dish that consists of sautéed stripped steak with onions tomatoes and french fries.  Yes french fries are actually mixed into this dish, not served as a side.  My girlfriend really liked this dish, but I have had it with more flavor and more spice at other places.  Served with your meal is a generous basket of Peruvian white bread.  I would not normally mention white bread in this blog, but this bread is so moist and sweet it must be mentioned.  It is very similar to challah but just a little more dense.  It is served with both butter, and a spicy hot paste that I wound up putting on everything. 
So if you are looking to branch out a little on your Peruvian eats, I would strongly recommend El Chalan.  They might not have the Peruvian chicken we all love, but they will open you up to a cuisine that is undiscovered and under appreciated in this area.
EL Chalan is located at  1924 I Street Northwest, Washington DC

El Chalan on Urbanspoon

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