China Chilcano is not a new restaurant — in fact, by Washington terms these days, it’s practically ancient, having opened in January, 2015 — but as one of the eight José Andrés restaurant concepts now populating the area, particularly in Penn Quarter, you’d be forgiven if you overlooked it in favor of Beefsteak, Zatinya or Jaleo.
But don’t. If viewing the recent Olympic games in Rio gave you a hankering for South American cuisine, China Chilcano (418 7th St., N.W.) offers an exploration of the impact of large Japanese and Chinese immigrant communities on Peruvian food, resulting in dishes that meld South American staples like purple potatoes, aji peppers, and guanabana with shiitake mushrooms, daikon and sesame. It’s a fusion cuisine that evolved naturally over time, as immigrants and natives mixed and matched flavors and ingredients to create a cuisine that now represents a single country. It’s ceviche with soy, ponzu and jicama, hanger steak with shishito peppers, and coastal shrimp with fermented black beans.
For pure Peruvian comfort food, chaufa ticks all the boxes. A fried rice dish, chaufa has an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink vibe, particularly the Aeropuerto dish found on China Chilcano’s menu, bringing 20 seasonal vegetables together, which might include zucchini, snow peas, mushrooms, broccoli and asparagus, with rice, egg noodles and sweet potatoes, all topped off with paper-thin shavings of carrot playfully cut into the shape of tiny airplanes. The result is both artistic and satisfying, and chef Omar Rodriguez plays with textures and flavors even more with the crunchy Chaufa de Quinua, substituting Peru’s native grain for traditional rice to great effect.
Other options include pegao norteno, lamb pot stickers adorned with crispy “lace” made from cumin; and sudado de pescado, a traditional Peruvian fish stew that’s prepared en papillote in fata paper, a kind of clear film that allows you to see all the ingredients as the server presents it and cuts it open tableside. For dessert, go for the classic suspiro limena, a luscious sweetened condensed milk custard accented with crunchy logs of meringue and tart notes of passion fruit.
While at China Chilcano, you’ll want to indulge in pisco, the high-proof brandy made in Peru’s winemaking region. With a lengthy list of piscos made from different grape varietals, you can exercise your palate by exploring the subtleties of pisco made variously from single varietals or blends, or the highly aromatic pisco made with fresh grape juice. And the frothy pisco sour, a classic Peruvian cocktail invented by an American bartender in Lima, is, of course, a silky delight.
If you opt to take a seat at the Marketplace bar, which offers great deals on cocktails and snacks from 4-6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and all day on Sunday, be sure to check out the colorful macerados lined up in jars behind the counter. Typically found in homes across Peru, macerado is fruit-infused pisco; at China Chilcano, the offerings are ever-changing as the staff plays with different ingredients, from guinda, a sour cherry macerado that makes a beautiful base for a pisco sour; to maiz morado, made with Andean purple corn, and a wide range of others, including ginger, pineapple, lemon-cardamom, and a spicy pepper that’ll knock your socks off.
Kristen Hartke is a D.C.-based food writer and editor; follow her kitchen adventures on Twitter @kristenhartke.