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The Spot: El Chalan, 1924 Eye St. NW, (202) 293-2765
The Cuisine: Peruvian
The Go-To Dishes: ceviche mixto, cabrito norteño
The Scoop: When it comes to Peruvian food in the metro area, we’re often relegated to thinking that the El Pollo Rico locations are the alpha and the omega of this sadly under-appreciated cuisine. I’m not trying to diss El Pollo Rico because it is absolutely a quality establishment. I just want more. So how do I go about furthering my Peruvian palate? I have walked by both Inti Peruvian Restaurant off Dupont and El Chalan Restaurant downtown about a million times, but I figured a little expert advice couldn’t hurt the process. Who better to call than the Peruvian Embassy, right?
Wrong. When I called and asked where I could find the best Peruvian food in D.C., an embassy man wondered if I was near a computer. Naturally I got excited, believing he was about to give me classified information on a top-secret Peruvian restaurant open only to diplomats and distinguished dignitaries. As I sat there salivating over the phone, ready to discover a Peruvian oasis, the man from the embassy instructed me to, “Go to Google and type in good Peruvian restaurant in Washington, D.C.”
I decided to take matters into my own hands and visit El Chalanon the outskirts of Foggy Bottom. As I walked down the stairs toward the front door, I was struck by the ambiance and quaintness of El Chalan. The restaurant was dimly lit and decorated with murals and religious paintings that give it a borderline romantic feel. I’d been told that the cramped restaurant fills up during the lunch hour, serving the hungry masses from the nearby World Bank and IMF, but there were only a handful of occupied tables for dinner. It made for a relaxing atmosphere.
I knew I wanted ceviche before I even walked in and was thrilled to see there was not one but two options on the menu. The ceviche pescado was a purely fish-based preparation, while the mixto had a combination of fish, mussels, squid, and conch, both of which were traditionally marinated with citrus juices and spiked with chili peppers and onions. I got one order of the ceviche mixto, and it was pleasingly fresh with a bracing citrus blast jam-packed with flavor. To complement the appetizer, a loaf of bread with a red pepper paste was brought to the table, and I washed it down with a Cristal, a smooth Peruvian cerveza.
Unfortunately, the ceviche was the highlight of my night. My dining companion and I ordered two traditional entrees: the lomo saltado and the cabrito norteño. The lomo saltado — a dish of beef strips sauteed with onions and tomatoes and served with fried potatoes — was not juicy and flavorful like others I’ve had. Its dry texture reduced it to a bland, Peruvian stir-fry. The cabrito norteño — a traditional goat stew cooked in beer, vinegar, onions, and spices and served with rice and beans — was definitely an upgrade. The spice combination was delicious, and the goat meat was cooked on the bone, providing a whole lot of flavor. It wasn’t a dish that would bring me back over and over again, but I enjoyed it at the time.
The Verdict: I want to believe that El Chalan‘s kitchen was just having an off-night with the lomo saltado because everything else about the place is so right. The atmosphere is relaxed and inviting, and the waitstaff is courteous and attentive. The ceviche mixto is a must for anyone interested in this Peruvian staple. I just hope everything else on the menu can follow suit by the time you make it out to El Chalan.