I was very excited when my friend, Mark Gonzalez, said he wanted to take me to his favorite Peruvian Restaurant; unfortunately “life” got in the way for a good two months. I swear he though I was blowing him off as I cancelled, rescheduled, and then cancelled again. I am glad he caught me this week, as the next two weeks of my life are going to be crazy busy and he probably would have just given up on me and then I would have never gotten to enjoy Ay Ay Picante’s fabulous food.
Ay Ay Picante is in Mayfair, on a stretch of Elston just South of Montrose. I never knew the neighborhood named Mayfair existed until a few weeks ago when I finally made it to Zebda. (That will have to be a blog post soon, as I loved it.)
I basically wanted to try everything on the menu at Ay Ay Picante. It all sounded very unfamiliar and exotic to me, but Mark warned me that portions were quite large. We couldn’t even finish what we did order. Next time I think my plan of attack will be the appetizer menu so I can try the tamales, humitas, and rellanas. We ordered all of Mark’s favorites, ceviche mixto, aji de gallina and lomo saltado. They know him here as he orders the aji de gallina so often.
So, you are asking, what are these crazy dishes that I have never heard of? Well, you’ve probably heard of or had ceviche before. It is seafood that is “cooked” by the lime juice that it marinates in. The acid literally cooks it. The mixto ceviche we had consisted of shrimp, calamari, tilapia, octopus and thinly sliced red onions, lime juice and rocoto chiles. The juice that is created by the seafood, lime & chiles is called “leche de tigre”, tiger’s milk, and is often drunk after all the seafood is eaten or even served in shot glasses. It is said to cure hangovers. I did not have a hangover and I didn’t drink the leche de tigre, but I sure did eat all the seafood. The ceviche was tart and tangy without being sour. It was refreshing and light and reminded me of the summer to come. It is on it’s way, no? I loved the texture of the octopus, nice and meaty, pure, perfect texture, not rubbery at all, which happens way too often. Actually all the different textures of the seafood helped make this dish so successful. The delicateness of the tilapia, contrasted the meatiness of the octopus, the sturdiness of the calamari that had a slight chew, a good chew, was contrasted by the tenderness of the shrimp. All the textures were complimented by the slivers of thinly sliced red onion that added great flavor, but did not intrude or overwhelm. When I see that many red onions, I would usually pick around most of them, as they do have a tendency to overwhelm a dish. In the ceviche, though, I was seeking red onions out, to add a crunch and a burst of flavor that totally complimented the seafood, lime and chiles.
One thing Mark said was that the ceviche wasn’t as spicy as it usually was and it was probably because I was white! I can see that. He was blunt about it. He can be. We’re friends! That is what happens when I dine out with my husband, who is Chinese; he has to explain that we want it spicy, that I can handle it. (Sadly, I no longer can, so I was happy with the “white” version of ceviche!)
Aji de gallina, chile pepper chicken, was the next dish we conquered, or conquered us, I should say. I think this dish may have been toned down a bit, too, as it was not spicy at all, but it was quite flavorful. As you can see, the dish is nothing pretty. It looks pretty bland, chicken in a yellow sauce that consists of peanuts, milk and cheese, served with white rice, hard boiled eggs and a few olives. But boy did the aji de gallina pack in the flavor. It was not peanuty like a Thai dish, but there was a backbone of peanut flavor. The cheese and milk added body and richness…and boy was it rich! At first I didn’t think much of the few black olives on the plate, thinking that “wow, good thing these are here, otherwise this dish would be a study in beige”, but those powerful little black olives added a saltiness & acidity that the dish needed to break up the richness. They knew what they were doing, although I would have liked a few more of those powerful richness breaker uppers!
Lomo saltado was what we were digging into next, not like we had room in our stomach, but I am a trooper! Mark said it was basically a stir fry of beef marinated in soy sauce, stir-fried with garlic, tomatoes, cilantro, onions and French fries, yes, French fries, served with rice. I didn’t know that there were so many Chinese influences in Peruvian food. Soy sauce is known as sillau, a Cantonese word, in Peru, not salsa de soya, which would be Spanish. In fact, Peru has the largest Chinese population in all of Latin America. A million people of Chinese origin live in Peru and there are over 2000 “chifas”, Chinese restaurants in Peru. Cool. Back to the subject at hand, though, lomo saltado. What could be wrong with beef stir-fried with French fries and served with rice? Nothing. Exactly. Ok, end of that story, I guess. Next time I want to try the chaufa, which is Chinese style fried rice. I have a feeling every time I come here, I am going to eat too much. Oh well, such is life.
I would say bring lots of people when you visit Ay Ay Picante as the dishes are quite large. While I think it is a bargain at dinner, as it is also BYOB, lunch can be a stretch on the pocket book. I say this because the menu is the same for lunch or dinner. $14 for a dinner entrée is a steal to me, but spending $30 on lunch, each, as Mark and I did, was a bit of a surprise. That said, I did not need to eat anything else that day. Seriously. I kept looking at my watch, waiting to get hungry. It was 7:00, then 8:00, then 10:00 and nope, I still wasn’t hungry. So I quit worrying about it and went to bed!
Ay Ay Picante 4569 N. Elston 773-427-4239