If I — a vivid dreamer on rare occasion — had a crystal-clear vision in my sleep about every dish I ate at China Chilcano that night, then that should be your sign to go.
Nestled in Penn Quarter a stone’s throw away from the National Portrait Gallery, China Chilcano is a Peruvian-Chinese-Japanese restaurant that opened in January 2015. It is considered the brainchild of chef José Andrés, who created this restaurant to concoct contemporary takes on Peruvian cuisine with twists of Chinese and Japanese techniques, a fusion frontier not often explored.
One of my closest friends recommended this restaurant to me at the beginning of the semester, and I earnestly promised I would eat here. When another friend came up to visit Washington, D.C. for the weekend, this seemed the best time to make good on that promise.
Warm neon lights in red and yellow hues and bamboo accenting created a dim atmosphere as we walked into the restaurant. An energetic waiter promptly sat us down and guided us through the menu, giving descriptions of dishes that caught our eye and extensive recommendations for each menu section. The waiter also made sure to ask about any allergies in a humorous exchange.
“I’ve also got the same allergies as you, so I can’t betray you like that,” the waiter said.
About 15 minutes later, we received the four dishes we ordered. The first one we dove into was the Dancing Yucca, a pile of thick-cut yucca fries made from the starchy yucca plant that were drizzled with ají amarillo mayo, kabayaki sauce and bonito flakes. While I enjoyed the starchiness of the yucca and the various toppings, the yucca fries felt too blocky and didn’t have enough toppings proportionate to the size of the fries. The dish also felt like something we could have made in a dorm kitchen, not a highly-sought-after appetizer at a sleek modern restaurant.
The second dish we decided to try was the Jiaozi de la Chacra, a beautifully arranged plate of traditional Chinese dumplings reimagined with cilantro dough, a squash filling and ají rocoto sauce. As someone accustomed to the joys of handmade dumplings from her mother, I was skeptical about these jiaozi. However, upon first bite, I was pleasantly surprised. The Chinese and Peruvian flavors meshed well on my taste buds, and the rocoto sauce added complexity that isn’t normally found in a typical Chinese dumpling. As the number of dumplings on the plate dwindled closer to zero, I found myself wishing I had the extra money to order another for the table.
The third dish — by far the most interesting — was the Causa Limeña. Imagine a chicken salad, except it’s buried under a mound of potato causa that’s topped with avocado chunks and ají amarillo chimichurri. Neither my friend nor I are huge chicken salad people, but we were eager to try the dish anyway because of the potato. It turned out to be a wonderful textural experience, as the smooth potato complimented the crunchy chicken salad quite nicely. Despite the fact that this dish wasn’t a flavor powerhouse like the others, it was a nice palette cleanser and landed higher on my ranking of the dishes for the evening.
The fourth dish, which happened to be our favorite dish, was the Char Siu Platter. Delectable pieces of Chinese-style BBQ pork shoulder (char siu), steamed bao buns, pickled nabo (daikon radish), tamarind hoisin, rocoto pepper sauce and ginger scallion oil laid in front of us for assembly. With our buns constructed, we each took a bite and immediately knew it was the best thing we had eaten thus far that night. The flavor of the char siu and the pepper sauce blended together harmoniously, and the other toppings made my mouth feel as if taste bud fireworks were erupting.
While the main dishes alone would’ve elicited a four-star rating, what really put this restaurant in the five-star territory were the desserts. There was the Ponderaciones de Kiwicha, a snail-shaped dessert consisting of a crispy fried kiwicha spiral cookie and banana ice cream atop a mound of Peruvian chocolate cream that resulted in a comforting taste reminiscent of a banana split.
Then, there was the Suspiro Limeña, a heavenly bowl of sweetened condensed milk custard topped with crunchy meringue and passion fruit. It was the first time I ever visibly salivated after having a bite of dessert. The not-too-sweet condensed milk custard combined with the vibrant passionfruit is a divine taste to behold. I physically cradled the empty bowl, a sight I’m sure neighboring patrons found amusing.
While my wallet may be empty, my stomach was full, and happily so. Tonight, I will imagine tucking myself into a comfy bao bed atop a char siu mattress with daikon radish sheets, counting down the days until I can trek to China Chilcano again.