Can someone tell me how Peruvian food made it big in the Bay Area? It can’t be demographics — according to 2000 Census figures, Peruvian Americans represent barely 1 percent of East Bay Hispanics. And it can’t be the siren song of exoticism — most of the typical dishes contain some combination of meat, seafood, rice, and potatoes, and when you’re lucky, all four.
But somehow, Peruvian cuisine has become our Next Big Thing, given a big shot of glam by Limón, the Prada bag of a San Francisco bistro run by veterans of Jardinière and Rubicon. My own theory is that the slow swell of interest in Peruvian cuisine is like London’s Belgian fad of the mid-1990s — it offers a whiff of adventure, yet won’t lure you outside your comfort zone.
While Oakland’s Club Anton is importing ceviche from nearby La Furia Chalaca and San Francisco’s Peruvian chefs are pairing foie gras with yams, Chola’s exists in a tiny corner of Concord, tucked so far back into a strip-mall complex that the Postal Service barely knows it’s there. Apparently no one has told the industrially carpeted, asbestos-ceilinged restaurant that people fifty miles away are dressing up to eat the kind of food it’s serving. According to our waiter, 80 percent of its customers are Peruvians who drive to the two-year-old restaurant from all over Contra Costa County.
Chola’s saves up every baroque impulse to splurge on its classic Peruvian-style ceviche, raw seafood “cooked” in lime juice until the flesh firms up and turns opaque. A mound of fish (ceviche de pescado) or fish, squid, prawns, and mussels (ceviche mixto) — so high it deserves an elevation sign — rises from a plate paved with thick disks of boiled potatoes and sweet potatoes. Pink arcs of red onion cut through the white and purple seafood, its taste as flashy as the lime-and-chile marinade. The chewy squid could have been pulled out a half-hour earlier, but the fish remains silky. It’s sushi with an edge. To push it even farther over the top, the chefs garnish the ceviche with a handful of conchita, crunchy deep-fried corn.
If you dare, dip a squid tentacle into the ramekin of bright red ají sauce that the waiters set down next to your ceviche, and track the scalpel-sharp heat of the drop of sauce as it slices down your throat. Wash the burn away with sips of chicha, a sugary purple drink made with purple corn, pineapple juice, and allspice. Breathe. Repeat.
The combination is as foreign as Chola’s food gets — that is, besides the cau cau, a weekend special of braised tripe aimed at the expats. The menu lists thirty main dishes, many of them variations on each other. For example, the picante de mariscos is a simple sauté of squid, prawns, mussels, and cubes of potato in a saffron-hued cream sauce tinted with mild ajís amarillos, a yellow South American pepper. Renamed pescado a lo Macho, the seafood and sauce, minus the potatoes, are spooned over a whitefish fillet. Snazzed up with a little onion and cilantro, the latter has more appeal.
Another sauce common to several dishes is the salsa criolla, a simple slaw of finely sliced red onions, garlic, and oil. It cuts through the dull crunch of deep-fried chunks of pork in the chicharrón de chancho like a scream through an episode of Mystery — with a resounding Thank God. The same salsa, brightened up with diced tomatoes, crowns the jalea, a masterful assembly of deep-fried food. The juices ever-so-slowly drip down through the crisp, lightly breaded squid rings and tentacles and the golden-skinned wedges of potato and yuca to moisten the breaded fish fillet at the bottom, so it loses its crunch only at the very end. Take that, fish and chips.
Japanese immigrants to Peru, who first arrived at the end of the 19th century, lent ceviche their genius, lightening the marinade on an indigenous marinated fish dish and turning what must have been acidic, tough meat into a national treasure. Chinese immigrants such as the ancestors of Chola’s owner, Alberto Chang, came to South America several decades before the Japanese, and their influence on Peruvian cuisine is also palpable. For one, the Chinese brought fried rice — Chola’s arroz chaufa tastes just like your neighborhood Chinese restaurant’s, only twice as expensive and without the fortune cookie at the end. Their influence is also palpable in one of Peru’s other national dishes, lomo saltado. To make this ultimate Asian-American comfort food, chicken or beef is stir-fried with onions, tomatoes, and french fries in soy sauce and garlic, and served over rice. I always have a hard time ordering anything else.
One exception would be an off-the-menu special, seco de cordero, cross-cut lamb shanks braised with pureed cilantro and basil. Time and reheating leached out the aroma of the cilantro, but the buttery sauce remained succulent and complex.
Chola’s entrées vary between delightfully plain and just plain plain. Its appetizers, however, uniformly satisfy. You can try all of them or get the sampler platter, big enough for four or five people. (With the caloric overwhelm of the massive entrées, a first course is definitely an order-if-you-dare proposition.) Along with a small bowl of ceviche came slices of fried plantain, otherwise known as molten gold. The Peruvian love of potatoes was expressed in the causa a la Limeña, a wedge of mashed-potato pie stuffed with a tangy chicken salad, and the papa a la huancaina, thick boiled potato rounds topped with black olives, sliced hard-boiled eggs, and a thin chile-cheese sauce. Trepidation gave way to gluttony with the anticucho, thin slices of beef heart marinated in soy sauce and quickly grilled. I could see the eyes of my friends widen when they first bit down and discovered its chewy texture, and widen still further when they discovered how concentrated its meaty flavor was.
The restaurant offers two classic dishes. Chang imports the first, lucuma ice cream, from Peru; the golden, creamy subtropical fruit is related to the mamey sapote — if you know what that is — and tastes like the child of the unholy union between a mango, a jackfruit, and a butternut squash. The cooks make their own alfajores, sandwich cookies twice the size of Oreos. More solid than some, Chola’s alfajores are constructed of two improbably buttery shortbread rounds enclosing a thick blob of dulce de leche. It’s nothing glamorous or trendsetting, but like Chola’s, it’s as honest as they come.