Williamsburg, where S and I live, is a tricky place when it comes to food. The grocery stores suck (now that we have a car I drive 20 minutes to Long Island City, where I used to live, to hit the Stop & Shop). Finding good produce is a notoriously difficult proposition. But there are still vestiges of the Italian community that used to fill my immediate neighborhood, so good bread and homemade mozzarella are not hard to find. The Latino area to the east of us has all kinds of interesting-looking things that I don’t know how to cook. And the Polish community to the northwest is a source for the dried mushrooms I use in soup, pierogies, and kielbasa (though I must admit those last two items rarely, if ever, enter my kitchen).
But the Williamsburg draw for foodies is the restaurant scene. There are countless small places serving fresh, innovative, and swoon-inducing food. One of our favorites is just down the street from us at the corner of Union Avenue and Meeker, a warm, abundantly friendly Peruvian place called Chimu.
Inside is dark and cozy. Incan-inspired ceramics and flickering candles create a romantic atmosphere. The greeting is immediate and welcoming—usually one of two Peruvian gentlemen who I assume are the owners but also act as menu interpreters and, often, waiters. After we are seated, one of them places a small bowl of cancha, roasted Peruvian corn kernels, on the table.
They may look a little like what’s left in the bottom of the popcorn bowl, but cancha is what those hard little nuggets aspire to. I believe there’s a picture of them in the dictionary, above the word “addictive.” Larger than popcorn kernels, lightly oily, and salty, they shatter in your mouth, rather than crunching. They feel almost hollow, and delicate. The corn itself is one of dozens of varieties not available here. The owners import it from Peru, where it dries for days in the sun, according to Incan custom. It gets a quick toss in a sauté pan, with a little oil and a sprinkling of salt, before being served while still warm. S loves cancha so much he’s been known to stop in for a little takeout container on his way home.
Here’s where I confess to being a bit of a creature of habit. After two or three trips to Chimu, I’d sampled enough of the dishes to arrive at a favorite appetizer as well as a favorite entrée. The rotisserie chicken is wonderful, as are several of the steak dishes. The fried plantains are outstanding, caramelized and soft with ever-so-slightly crisp edges. But none of these things compare, in my book, to the Tamal Criollo and the Lomo Saltado de Pollo.
The Tamal Criollo is a chicken tamale, red corn-meal dough stuffed with pieces of chicken, chopped hard-boiled eggs, tiny olives, and what taste like soft peanuts, all wrapped and steamed. All by itself, it’s a homey, comforting mix of flavors, but topped with Salsa Criollo…oh. my. god. According to the ever-helpful waiter/owner/menu interpreter, Salsa Criollo as served at Chimu is made of thinly sliced red onions, chopped cilantro, olive oil, vinegar, lemon & lime juices, and salt & pepper. I’m one of those people who hates cilantro (tastes like dirty dish water to me, and often activates my gag reflex), but in this salsa I don’t even notice it. The onions are slightly soft, their bite weakened to a mere hint. The tang of the macerating liquid plays off the subtler flavors of the tamal, elevating each mouthful to superstar status. It’s a big portion so S and I share it, but there is no doubt that we’ll lick the plate every time.
Between the cancha and the Tamal Criollo, I’m usually pretty stuffed by the time the Lomo Saltado arrives, but it’s never terribly hard to find room. The aroma itself is enough to set my mouth to watering: sautéed onions and tomatoes, strips of chicken breast and some incredible, mysterious seasoning—aji pepper, perhaps?—served over French fries with a mound of white rice on the side. (Yes, it’s a lot of carbs and fries are fattening; the first time I ordered it I was taken aback, but now I just ask for very few fries—to skip them entirely would be heretical, since they absorb the juices completely differently from the way rice does.)
S usually orders something beef-based—their steaks are quite delicious—and this time he had the same as mine, only with beef (apparently that’s the traditional preparation for Lomo Saltado). It, too, tasted divine—similar to the chicken version, but the beef added a heartier flavor.
Initially we planned to skip dessert—we were both stuffed—but Purple Corn Pudding beckoned. We’d only had it once before, but it was one of the most unusual, and most deeply flavored, desserts I’ve ever had. Thick, almost gelatinous, served warm and studded with plumped Peruvian dried fruits, it was sweet but not cloying, and memorably good. And yet, even though S and I agreed we’d share one order, when the waiter came over he sold us on something entirely different—Peruvian fruit-flavored ice cream, a scoop each of lucuma and cherimoya. Oh, how he raved about the lucuma! Neither of us had ever heard of it so we had no idea what to expect, but we figured anything he endorsed so whole-heartedly was worth a shot. End result: It was good, very good. It tasted like caramel, in fact, which was a shock. When we got home I looked it up, and sure enough lucuma is described as tasting naturally of butterscotch or maple syrup. The cherimoya reminded me of the sucking candies my grandmother used to keep in a bowl on the coffee table, those translucent rectangular ones with a soft fruity center, in a white wrapper with a color illustration of the fruit it was meant to taste like. In other words, it tasted almost generically fruity. We enjoyed both flavors, and finished the bowl, but it was no Purple Corn Pudding.
When the check arrived it was delightfully low for such a feast: just $36.00. Chimu is truly one reason to be happy we live in Williamsburg. That Salsa Criollo…I had a heck of a time finding a recipe that resembles what we enjoyed so much, but I did manage to cobble this together:
Serves 2-4, depending on how much you LOVE it!
1 large red onion, sliced thin
4 T. fresh lime juice
¼ t. white vinegar
1 t. olive oil
2 t. chopped fresh cilantro
Put the onion in a sieve and pour boiling water over it to soften (they still retain some crunch). Mix all ingredients together and serve immediately.