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A three-part plan to bring D.C. a variety of Peruvian dining experiences in Shaw’s Blagden Alley is underway. Chelita, a hybrid of a cebicheria and an anticucheria, will specialize in cebiche (also spelled ceviche) and skewered meat, fish, and vegetables when it opens in early 2021.
More than a year ago, the bar stars behind Service Bar, Glendon Hartley and Chad Spangler, took over the vacant space located at the rear of 920 N St. NW that was originally set to be an outpost of Village Whiskey. Their plan was to open a Peruvian fine dining restaurant called Causa.
That restaurant is still in the works and will eventually occupy the first floor of the building, but the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed their plans. The team decided a fast-casual operation optimized for take-out and delivery will set them up for early success and position them to open two concepts better suited for dine-in service down the line. Once there’s more certainty about the future, they’ll open Amazonia on the second floor, followed by Causa.
Executive chef and partner Carlos Delgado will helm all three concepts. Delgado and Hartley first collaborated at shuttered H Street NE Peruvian restaurant Ocopa. Hartley created the cocktails and Delgado was the chef and owner. Post food critic Tom Sietsema wrote in his 2014 review that “dish after dish suggests Ocopa may be the best thing playing on H Street right now,” and “every time I eat at Ocopa, I wonder what took Carlos Delgado so long to show off the flavors of his native Peru.”
Delgado, who was the executive chef of China Chilcano when the restaurant furloughed him in April due to the pandemic, is from Callao, a seaside city in the Lima metropolitan area. While he was working at the José Andrés restaurant, Delgado, Hartley, and Spangler grew closer and began traveling to Peru regularly to conduct research for the restaurants they dreamt of opening together.
“We’ve taken three or four trips throughout almost the whole country,” Delgado says. They fished for piranhas in the Amazon and climbed Machu Picchu in between meals. “This was me introducing them to my world. If you go as a tourist, you’re going to see what you’re expecting to see. I showed them where I come from.”
Hartley most enjoyed visiting pisco producers who were eager to talk about the country’s dominant spirit, a South American brandy. “Pisco is drastically unrepresented in the U.S.,” says the bar owner, who is also a brandy educator and promoter. He’s aiming to have one of the largest lists of pisco in the country and will roll out a pisco tasting club with perks once Causa and Amazonia open. Cocktails at the restaurants will feature Peruvian ingredients such as cherry-like camu camu and prickly pear cactus that Peruvians call “tuna.” Chelita will have a few cocktails available too, including a house pisco sour.
Chelita is named after Delgado’s late grandmother who raised him in the kitchen. The chef anticipates serving 10 cebiches at different price points depending on if the fish is local, from the West Coast, or imported from overseas. You might see Chesapeake rockfish on the same menu as madai snapper from Japan. Those who want to make cebiche at home can purchase a whole or butchered fish, plus leche de tigre for marinating. There will also be a selection of hot seafood dishes.
Rounding out the Chelita menu will be an array of skewers called anticuchos, which are typically sold at street stalls. They originated in the Andes, where they were popular with Incas. The best known anticucho is made from beef heart, which Delgado will serve, along with fish cheeks, fish collar, sweet breads, pork, chicken, and vegetables.
The intense marinade for anticuchos calls for aji panca chile peppers, garlic, oregano, cumin, and vinegar. Delgado plans to introduce a little smokiness by cooking the loaded skewers over a binchotan grill—the same set-up chefs use at Japanese kushiyaki restaurants. Peru has the sixth highest population of Japanese immigrants in the world.
Chelita will occupy the first floor until Causa is ready to launch. Customers will be able to order pick-up or delivery, or dine on the restaurant’s designated outdoor space atop fellow Blagden Alley restaurant Tiger Fork.
The team’s vision is to showcase distinct cuisines from the three climate regions of Peru—the Andes, the Amazon, and the coast. While Causa zeroes in on the Andes (think root vegetables and meat) and the coast (seafood, including an emphasis on whole fish preparations), Amazonia will focus on native ingredients and have more of a lounge feel.
“The whole menu at Amazonia focuses on if one day you were to go to Peru and take the time to travel to the Amazon,” Delgado explains. “You go to a little town and it’s known for grilled plantains with cheese. The dishes are all the things you’d try if you traveled down there.”
He considers the three-part restaurant the culmination of his career. “I would call it my holy grail—my 30 years of life put into a restaurant,” Delgado says. “It’s all I could ever want.”
Delgado, Hartley, and Spangler are currently raising money on Kickstarter to help them open the restaurants. They’re seeking $45,000.
Chelita, 920 N St. NW (rear); instagram.com/causadc