China Chilcano is open every single day, from 11 AM until closing: It’s open 84 hours a week. It’s safe to say that this restaurant better have some serious depth of staff, because you’re not guaranteed of the “A Team,” or even the “B Team,” at any given meal – that is an absolutely brutal schedule to keep, and there must be a very high number of employees here. A lot of people made a lot of noise when Koji Terano came here to run the ceviche bar, and when Carlos Delgado came here to run the kitchen, but if you play the odds, you shouldn’t count on them being here when you are.
From 4-6 PM, Mon-Fri, China Chilcano features “Pisco Hour,” with a few drink and food specials, most of which are a couple of dollars off the regular price. I arrived just before 6 PM one evening, and my first order was from the special Pisco Hour menu: a Pisco Sour ($5, usually $12 – there’s your bargain here) with Macchu Pisco, lime, an inch-thick coat of egg-white foam, and 5-6 drops of Amargo Chuncho bitters dotting the top, then formed into a spiral with a straw – it’s a nice looking drink, and if you leave it tilted long enough, an undercurrent of Pisco Sour will emerge from beneath the viscous egg whites, providing an exciting, chilled sip of liquid to enjoy before licking the moustache off your top lip.This is a good drink, and although I’ve never been a huge Macchu Pisco fan, it’s a good value at $5, and has a really nice flavor. My bartender, Lydia, really knew how to shake a Pisco Sour, and made a double – one for me, and one for my neighbor at the bar – apparently, there was a mix-up, and my neighbor didn’t get the drink she wanted (I didn’t get any details, but it was nobody’s “fault”), and Lydia was going to throw it out; I told her that I was most likely going to order two, and for her to simply give it to me and put it on my bill. My neighbor warned me that she’d taken a sip, but I didn’t care – I think it’s a sin to waste a perfectly good drink, and it was going to be thrown away, so I insisted on paying for it, and enjoyed it about ten minutes later with an order of Atún Picante ($10, usually $12 – the big savings at Pisco Hour are on the drinks). This “spicy tuna roll,” made uramaki style (an uramaki roll is one with the rice on the outside – they’re often called “inside-out rolls”), had the potential to be *very* spicy, as it was made with tuna, cucumber, avocado, cilantro, puffed quinoa, and the kicker: aji limo, which is a Peruvian Lemon Drop Pepper, the purée from which will bring tears to any man’s eyes. The very first bite I took was a fingertip of aji limo, and it lit me on fire, and left me wondering if this ample, eight-piece roll was going to be over-the-top. ThinkFoodGroup has a way with novel flavor combinations, so I still had hope that, if I had an entire piece in a single bite (which is exactly how this roll is designed to be eaten), the other ingredients would tame the heat, and sure enough, they did. It was a brilliant combination of flavors, and the lemon drop pepper purée was mercifully neutralized by things such as the avocado (the primary fire hydrant), the oil from the tuna, the cool cucumber, the egg white in the Pisco Sour, and I really enjoyed the dish – at $10, and even at $12, it’s a fine plate well-worth ordering, and I recommend it regardless of whether it’s Pisco Hour or not. One memorable condiment was the “ginger” on the side of the plate, which wasn’t ginger at all; rather, it was sliced-and-piled daikon radish – a lovely surprise that brought a smile to my face.
Pisco Hour had ended, so I finished my meal ordering from the regular menu. I’ve always enjoyed Cusqueña ($6), as it’s a fairly rare lager with malty overtones, so I finished my meal with this beer – I vehemently disagree with Beer Advocate’s low rating of this beer. Yes, it’s mass-produced, and tastes like it, but it also has a nice, malty flavor and is better than, for example, Fat Tire (another malty, mass-produced beer, albeit a light ale). Whenever I see Cusqueña, I’m usually at a Salvadoran-type restaurant, and often get it – I really should have gotten something more novel here, but I was in the mood for a cool one, so I went with my gut and stuck with beer.
There are three “classifications” for the food items at China Chilcano: Chifa (China), Nikkei (Japan), and Criollo (Spain and West Africa), and I was careful to get one thing from each. Koji Terano wasn’t working the ceviche bar on this evening, but someone still made a pretty good Atún Picante described above (and which, ironically, is something you’re more likely to see from Koji’s “counterpart” (I figured that was a better word than “arch enemy”), Kaz Okochi, because of the saucing involved).
The Atún Picante was obviously marked “Nikkei,” and for my second course, I went “Chifa” and ordered one of the four Sui Mai offered: the Concha ($12 for 7 dumplings), made with scallop, pork, jicama, shiitake mushroom, and tobiko. These were presented in a semi-traditional woven basket, and were worth ordering for their intelligently chosen flavor combinations. The biggest problem a purist might have with these is that the dumplings weren’t cooked to an al dente texture – they were more fully cooked: not quite “floppy,” but I’ve had sui mai countless times at countless Chinese restaurants, and these were towards the “fully cooked” end of the bell curve. However, the doneness of these dumplings wasn’t a deal-breaker, and the flavors were knit together well enough where I’m happy to recommend this dish.
As I worked my way through the Sui Mai, the serene feel of the bar area became quite tense. Earlier in the meal, I had seen one of ThinkFoodGroup’s upper-level employees at the other end of the restaurant, who mercifully left me alone (much appreciated). All of a sudden, the previously quiet atmosphere became infused with electricity, as if the entire staff had quaffed five shots of espresso apiece – then, I heard a deep, bellowing, Spanish-accented voice behind me and to my left. There was apparently a staff meeting taking place in the bar area, and only once in my entire dining career do I remember the entire staff leaping to attention the way they did on this evening: One evening, long ago, I was having dinner at Gerard’s Place, Gerard Pangaud’s outstanding little restaurant just off McPherson Square, and all of a sudden, Yannick Cam came walking in, with one of the most beautiful girls I’d ever seen, and took a table. Thrown into a panic, the servers began looking at each other with a “What do I do?” expression, and the entire “feel” of the dining room became one of “motion” – it was the exact same thing here, as if there was an ionized charge in the air. China Chilcano is a bustling restaurant during normal rush hour, but I purposely went during a more serene time, and the change in atmosphere was both palpable and dramatic. As one of the bartenders was filling a round of Pisco Sours, I broke the tension by joking that I would have another Cusqueña after they’d finished panicking. He laughed, and said something about “when Big Papa comes” – the entire scene was quite amusing.
To be followed by La Increíble y Triste Historia del Cándido Papa Grande y de su Presidente Desalmado.
I wanted to try a third selection from the Criollo section, especially given that this is most likely in Chef Carlos Delgado’s wheelhouse – recall that he came from Ocopa, at one time the best Peruvian restaurant in DC. What else would I get other than Aji de Gallina ($16), according to the menu, “Peru’s most precious dish,” an Aji Amarillo Chicken Stew, with fresh cheese, pecan, and rice – the descriptors don’t do this stew justice. Since it is, in origin, a long-cooked stew, I got it to go, figuring that letting it sit wouldn’t hurt it, and might even help it (there is actually one drawback to doing this which you won’t think of: the cardboard container is rough-hewn on the inside, and actually absorbed a fair amount of the deep, turmeric-yellow liquid from the stew – because of this one thing, I advise not getting the Aji de Gallina as a carryout item. That said, I really enjoyed this stew, and it’s quite a simple dish at heart, with its deep, mustard color coming from the mild Aji Amarillo chile. There are, I believe, five species of chiles, and the Aji Amarillo is a Capsicum baccatum – fear not: This is a mild spice, and would register close to a “1” on a “1-to-10” Scoville scale.
China Chilcano is an excellent choice for diverse groups of diners, as Peruvian cuisine tends to be quite mild – mixed in with overtones of Chinese and Japanese, there is something at this restaurant for (if you’ll forgive the cliché) diners from 8 to 80 – it might be a bit noisy for senior citizens, so that’s something you should keep in mind. Still, China Chilcano is maintained strongly in Italic, has a $10 parking lot within two blocks (901 E St. NW), and is one of your best dining options in Penn Quarter – it is currently my favorite ThinkFoodGroup restaurant (Minibar notwithstanding) by a sizeable margin.