The abundance of Peruvian restaurants in Santiago is a true indication of both the quantity of Peruvians who have migrated south as well as the growing popularity of the country’s cuisine. But with more choices come more questions as to which one offers the most authentic experience. My indecisiveness was given direction after the repetitious answer every Peruvian in Santiago gave me: El Aji Seco.
Photo by Elaine Ramirez
Once sitting at your table you may begin to observe a common theme on every other diner’s table in the restaurant. There are one of two beverages on tables: a two-liter bottle of bright yellow, bubble gum-flavored Inca Cola (CP$2,300) or a pisco sour CP$1,800 (US$3).
Unlike in some Chilean-Peruvian restaurants, the pisco at Aji Seco is always Peruvian, and the taste and quality stand out in the bittersweetness of the pisco, the creaminess of a touch of egg white and the perfect balance of freshly squeezed lemon juice and Angostura bitters topping off the pisco or mango sour.
Order one while you peruse the menu and observe the diligent servers delivering the Peruvian staple and second most common item on almost every table: pollo a la brasa (roasted chicken, French fries and salad), a quarter chicken CP$2,500, half chicken $4,500 and a whole chicken $7,900.
Among the most complex is the Lomo en Salsa de Pisco Peruano CP$5,000 (US$8). The lomo (steak filet) is grilled to your liking and topped off with a bright yellow cream sauce incorporating the biting Pisco and Peruvian yellow chilis, and softened by cream. Alongside the golden steak is arroz verde (green rice), a bright green, cilantro-spiked cheesy rice dish that resembles risotto, but with no cream and lots of parmesan. Finally, intricately cut red peppers garnish the dish while adding sweetness and completing the balance of colors and flavors.
The adventurous diner may enjoy an anticucho de corazón (cow heart kabob) for CP$2,600; sliced cow hearts marinate overnight in a secret house sauce (undisclosed by the waitress), then are chopped into small pieces, skewered, grilled and served hot at your table.
More traditional Peruvian cuisine is up to the highest standards and portions are large enough to easily feed a family with leftovers. The ceviche trio combines the saltiness of the sea with sour lime, bitter red onion and the sweetness of raw shellfish, fresh salmon and sea bass (CP$11,700).
The Aji de gallina is a delicately heavy dish consisting of sliced chicken breast, doused in a Peruvian yellow chili cream sauce, with quartered hard boiled eggs and bitter black olives over rice. Indeed, this dish is another example of the ingenuity of Peruvian cuisine, combining so many food groups and textures into balanced flavors.
Finally, spicy Peruvian cream sauces replace traditional butter or pebre that accompanies a basket of fresh bread, and is essential for a real Peruvian dining experience. These creams are loaded with spice and flavor, from garlic to garlic chili, a chili-lime-corriandor mix or straight chili (spicy!), and will allow you to dress your bread, salad, fries or chicken to your personal spice and garlic threshold.
Peruvian food is complex yet balanced, and so is the Aji Seco. What’s missing on the outside is surely made up for on the inside.
El Aji Seco
San Antonio 530 (at Catedral)
Sunday to Thursday, 12:30 to 11 pm
Friday and Saturday, 12:30 pm to 1 am