Rice, beans, fish, and root vegetables are standard fare, but within the cozy red and gold walls of El Chullo, a casual Peruvian restaurant in Central Phoenix, such ingredients are anything but.
Take a seat in this small restaurant and your server will greet you with a little dish of what look like, but definitely are not, peanuts. These are cancha, or corn nuts, and far superior to the American snack food. From this moment, the server will remain attentive and helpful for the rest of your meal. Feel free to ask questions.
You might want to begin with the tamal, an unfortunately tiny morsel of pork shredded perfectly into the fluffy, golden masa. Not your average tamale, this one arrived steamed in banana leaves rather than the corn husks to which Arizonans are accustomed. The tamal was garnished with cilantro, a slice of hard-boiled egg, and an olive.
On the hand-food side of appetizers, the crispy yuca frita was much like a French fry. The root vegetable is potato-like in texture but far less dense, and it features a subtle woody sweetness. A word of caution: Don't overdo it on root vegetables on the first course, as they will show up with your entrée. There are 3,800 different types of Peruvian tubers (potatoes); the entire genre is a regional staple and, therefore, added to every meal like a giveaway at a taping of Oprah: "you get a potato and you get a potato and you get a potato!"
As with the pork in the tamal, the preparation of meat and fish is really where El Chullo shines. The chicken in the escabeche de pollo was well marinated and succulent, covered in a savory red sauce that includes two traditional Peruvian spices: aji amarillo and aji panca.These spices come from two types of chile that have been dried and ground into a paste or powder. Like an adobo or an enchilada sauce, the resulting flavors, rather than spicy, are oily and rich and balance perfectly with the portions that initially don't appear to be that generous. Served with an adorable pyramid of rice and flash-fried yam (always with the potatoes), there is plenty of starch to help out with the huge amount of delicious sauce.
The only drawback for meat dishes is the frijoles con seco a la norteña (beans and rice served with a cilantro beef stew), in which the beef was chewy. The beans also were disappointing, albeit interesting. Although the ingredients were revealed to be simply beans and water and the consistency was nice, the flavor was not cilantro or basil, but very specifically spearmint. The downsides were met by an equal high point on the same plate, in that the gravy of the stew was a fantastic combination of peas, yams, onions, and cilantro.
It should be noted that those with that unfortunate genetic aversion to the flavor of cilantro should tread lightly around the El Chullo menu, as cilantro appears in or on nearly every single dish. Those with this tragic palate may have a difficult time determining where or when cilantro is used by reading the menu. It garnishes the top of most dishes and is used in many of the sauces, including -- and most importantly -- the ceviche.
For anyone who thinks ceviche is daunting and risky but is still interested in trying the curious dish of fish "cooked" in the acidity of limes and onions, El Chullo is the place to face that fear. Quickly marinated, sea bass is presented in a glistening tower and covered in red onions, lime juice, cilantro, and pepper. Spiciness is recommended but optional. Fresh without being too fishy and firm without being too chewy, this dish is crisp and refreshing. It is served with chilled potatoes and hominy on the side to balance out the tartness. You're not going to want to waste that sauce!
Not daring enough for ceviche but still in the mood for seafood? Try jalea pescado, a mildly spicy popcorn-style fish served with a chive and yogurt tartar sauce, hominy, and yuca frita. Aji amarillo paste provides the base for the flour and oil, which results in an aromatic and peppery bite that doesn't bear the weight of excess fat or oil. Think popcorn shrimp without the sweaty regret and with an unexpected kick of spice. Another seafood option is chupe de camarones, a shrimp chowder with eggs, corn, and rice for hearty texture and tender boiled shrimp. Highly suggested for a chilly day or as an antidote to an awful winter flu.
With all this talk of meat, vegetarians will likely cower, but the menu includes six vegetarian options, several of which even qualify as vegan. Quinoa, often a vegetarian and gluten-free favorite for both starch and protein, makes a cameo in a warm and spicy stew and is served along with rice.
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On the drink menu is a short list of cocktails called Pisco Sour. For those who don't know, pisco is a spirit that is made as a by-product of wine, like grappa. Pisco Sour is the national drink of Peru, traditionally made with egg white, lime, simple syrup, and bitters. Like ceviche, the alcohol and lime juice neutralize the raw egg white, which is shaken to build a creamy foam. The excellent Pisco Sour at El Chullo was tart and creamy, with the bitters floating atop the foam to add an aromatic element.
You need to know that at El Chullo, dessert is mandatory. After a hearty meal, eating anything else may seem out of the question but the alfajores are worth the extra work. Two buttery, crunchy cookies surround manjar blanca, a velvety sweet caramel sauce covered in a veritable snow-pocalypse of powdered sugar. It sounds messy, and it is. Nothing about this crumbling, gooey, fluffy experience is clean -- but it is doubtful that anyone ever complains.
El Chullo 2605 North Seventh Street 602-279-8425 Hours : 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday; 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday