The latest restaurant in Jose Andres’s empire is China Chilcano (pronounced cheena, Spanish style). This restaurant has occasionally been described as a Peruvian-Asian fusion restaurant, but that is not quite accurate. Peru is home to large Chinese and Japanese immigrant communities, and there is a melding of food that is indigenous to Peru. That melding of flavors and cuisines is what China Chilcano is replicating. There are even names for this blending of cuisines. Chifa is what the Chinese-Peruvian blend of cuisines is called while the Japanese-Peruvian blending is called Nikkei.
The restaurant is fairly large and has three distinct styles to it. One wing is full of relatively large tables that can seat families or larger parties. It is a little more formal than the rest of the restaurant with glossy wooden tables and white chairs. The middle wing has mostly 2 and 4 top tables and has a less formal, more hip air. The hippest wing of the restaurant, not surprisingly, is nearest the bar. The entire restaurant gives off an energetic vibe that is hip enough for the twenty-somethings but not so hip that it scares off fuddy-duddies like us. It’s a clean and bright space that is informal enough to be able to bring kids but formal enough that you can bring a client.
Enough with the décor. To no one’s surprise, I’m sure, the food is the main attraction for us.
We started off with the equivalent of chips & salsa, which here is Chifles Chiferos con Salsa (fried plantain chips, fried lotus root chips, and sweet potato-rocoto sauce). The sauce was very good, not as smokily delicious as the salsa at Oyamel but well blended with a bit of a bite. The plantain chips worked better than the lotus root chips for collecting the sauce (the lotus root chips have too many holes in them), but both were delicious.
Next up was the Ceviche Clasico La Mar, which is red snapper, leche de tigre, sweet potato, red onion, cancha, and cilantro. It was an excellent melding of citrusy and fish flavors, and the fish was very fresh.
We ordered the China Chilcano version of the California roll, which uses potato instead of rice and contains jumbo lump crab, tobiko, spicy mayo, cucumber, avocado, and huancaina sauce. Jim really liked this, as he thought it was an excellent example of the melding of cuisines. I was less enthusiastic. I’m not a fan of mushy, and the potato casing caused the roll to have significantly less texture. (Mush. Ick.)
Moving towards a more Asian part of the menu, we had the Kam Lu Wantan (fried shrimp-pork dumplings accompanied by hoisin-tamarind sauce). I suspect the dumplings would taste better pan-fried than deep-fried, but the filling was flavorful and excellently done.
We loved the Sanguche de Chancho Nipon (pork belly in lotus steamed bun accompanied by pickled daikon, sweet potato, miso, aji limo, and hoisin sauce). We were a bit skeptical about how the pork belly and sweet potato combination would work, but this was perhaps the best dish in terms of full melding of flavors from both cuisines. The combination worked excellently, and we could have cheerfully eaten a plateful of these.
The HaKao are steamed glass dumplings filled with shrimp and pork, served with a soy sauce-rocoto combination. They were delicious but didn’t stand out the way the pork buns did.
My favorite dish (but not Jim’s) was the Tallarin Zhen Fe, which is a Hong Kong-style rice flour noodle, tomato stew, black garlic, egg, and five spice. For those familiar with Chinese cuisine, this is the Peruvian take on the Chinese dish of scrambled eggs with tomato. The noodles were very toothsome with a lot of texture, and the black garlic and five spice added a distinctive flavor. I loved it. Jim was less enamored.
On the other hand, he loved the Lomo Saltado (prime strip steak, tomato, soy sauce, shishito pepper, ginger, and shoestring potatoes served with rice). I liked it very much, but I didn’t think it was as creative a melding of flavors as the Tallarin.
Desserts are the weakest part of the menu. We tried a classic Peruvian dessert, the Suspiro Limena (sweetened condensed milk custard topped with both soft and crunch meringue and passion fruit). I thought it was way too sweet with not enough tart passion fruit to cut the sweetness.
We also tried the Ponderaciones de Kiwicha, a crispy fried spiral cookie served with chocolate cream, banana, and Algarrobina ice cream. The presentation was beautiful, but the cookie didn’t have much flavor and actually went better with the Suspiro than the sides it was served with (it cut into the sweetness of that dish).
Overall, we were very pleased with our meal. The combination of cuisines may not be as accessible to everyone as the Mexican restaurant in the empire (Oyamel) or the Mediterranean restaurant (Zaytinya) or the Spanish restaurant (Jaleo), but we thought everything was excellently prepared with fresh ingredients and an unusual combination of flavors. The wait staff is clearly new, so there are some rough spots, but they are eager to please and will catch on soon enough. We will definitely be back!
China Chilcano is located at 418 7th Street, NW in Washington, DC (for long-time DC residents, it’s the old Olsson’s Bookstore space in Penn Quarter).
Note: in the interests of full disclosure, we are investors in ThinkFood Group, the company behind Jose Andres’s restaurants.