Jose Andres’ China Chilcano has been a long awaited addition to the DC food universe and so, when it opened in early January, there wasn’t an outlet that didn’t cover the 7th street opening (including us). Now, a month or so into service, it is time to chat about food…
The thrilling news is that, of course, China Chilcano is a truly unique food offering within Washington, DC. Andres has always enjoyed celebrating the specifics of the main cuisine centerpieces of his restaurants, be it Spain, Mexico or Greece, and with China Chilcano he dives deep into what makes Peruvian food like no other in the world. Coexisting in their cuisine (and on this menu) are three specific influences: the native Peruvian, Latin Criollo, Chifa which finds Chinese techniques joining those Criollo flavors, and Nikkei – the Japanese influence. Lazily, someone could call this place a Latin/Asian fusion (Which in 2015 often means “forced”) but the menu illustrates a much more organic approach to how these flavors have found a way to cohabitate, and that truly is a thing for a DC diner to celebrate.
This does mean that to some China Chilcano’s menu seems almost idiosyncratic: it is a restaurant with a gorgeous ceviche bar AND fried rice with egg noodles AND the classic Lomo Saltado but in the end, it is all about the journey.
We do recommend kicking things off with the ceviche. Peru serves their classic ones on a sea of leche de tigre, and is a milder, richer version of the heavily lemon cured versions we’ve all come to expect, and is a great, fresh way of starting a meal.
Afterwards, if you’re in the mood to share (and most people are in Andres’) restaurants – both the Siu Mai selections and the China Chilcano plays on sushi are great choices. Siu Mai comes in some expected (pork, chicken, scallop flavors) but also in what is tentatively the soon-to-be most instagrammed dish of the neighborhood: the Dorado – where an egg/shirm/jicama shu mai is topped with a tiny quail egg and golden flakes on top. But bear in mind: the burst of a warm egg in your mouth is so good that you probably don’t want to waste any precious cooling seconds on that photo.
The “sushi” essentially utilizes China Chilcano’s enviable seafood resources to create plays on classic rolls where pesky things like rice and seaweed paper are foregone for beautiful mounds of fresh crab and roe resting on tiny beds of potato causa. And while black vinegar-chicha de jora sauce which bears some resemblance to soy sauce is available for other dishes, these are served with the bright huacina sauce which adds depth to the flavors without cutting them too much.
In the mid-size portion universe, we can see the aforementioned Aeropuerto Fried Rice swaying many a (especially later-night) customer, but trust us: the dish you WANT TO order is Tam Tam, a hand-cut wheat noodle, with spicy pork, peanuts and aji panca. It photographs horribly, but it is the dish you will keep coming back for: savory, complex, satisfying and something that at the same time tastes both familiar and not like anything you’ve tasted before. In our opinion, this is China Chilcano at its best. In fact, as I was typing this, I wished it was in front of me again (and I am typing this at 7am, not the best time for spicy pork or big bowls of pasta by any accounts).
Still, Aji De Gallina (aka “Peru’s most precious dish” according to the menu) is a perfect companion and probably the second runner up. Chicken sits on top of a bed of aji amarillo with olives, cheese, pecans and rice. Hearty and mild, think of this as Andres’ yellow curry, but with a few extra flavor surprises inside. A lot of China Chilcano’s menu leans on the saltier side (All the better to wash down with a series of bilssfully mild Chilcano Cocktails which feature Pisco, Amargo Chuncho Bitters and Andres’ favorite Fever-Tree Ginger ale) but this dish celebrates the subtleties of cuisine, and is all the stronger for it.
You want it ALL spicier? Ask your server for the special in-house hot sauce – a bright orange slightly more vinegar-y versions of Sriracha, which goes with everything. During my meal we joked that this was Andres’ very own Mumbo sauce, and even a few days later, we can’t quite think of a better way to describe it. Use early and use often, if you’re in the mood for that little extra ooomph to everything.
Faced with the elaborate menu (above we just discuss some of the highlights, but trust us – the options are seemingly limitless) it would be easy to forgo dessert but trust us – you don’t want to. The two we tasted: Ponderaciones de Kiwicha (a crispy fried spiral of dough that comes on top of chocolate cream, babanas and house-made Algabarrino ice cream and is satisfyingly crushed with a spoon at the start of consumption) and Suspiro Limena (a contendes milk custard pepperd with soft and crunchy meringues and a passion fruit cream) were both quite revelatory.
In summation: China Chilcano is worth the hype. However, bear in mind, that much like with any other new, exotic addition to your life-it is worth a couple of visits to work out just what is the perfect balance of the three influences for you. We could see people stopping by and feasting exclusively on the “sushis” and the ceviches, after-Verizon-center crowds lapping up the Aeropuerto Fried Rice and Chifles (a combo of plaintain chips and fried lotus root chips), dates enjoying the Siu Mais and then the meat main courses… after a while, most people would find a way to make this little slice of Peru their home. You just can’t be afraid to try and mix and match.
And, remember, don’t ever skip the desserts.