Friday, January 9, 2015

Aji Peruvian Cafe - The next best thing if you can't get to Machu Picchu

I was recently indoctrinated to the wonders of Peruvian cuisine when I was invited to an impromptu dinner by my commercial real estate broker and cousin, Gus Lagos. Gus knows a good thing when he sees it, so he was quick to invite me to Aji located off the beaten path in West Houston. 
We were warmly greeted by co-owner Pilar Forkel upon our arrival. One thing Pilar does not lack is personality. She is a breath of fresh air and was eager to describe the national dishes of Peru. That evening I sampled causitas, mashed potatoes flavored three different ways and topped with Peruvian chicken salad. Each iteration was replete with it's own flavor and sauce. 

Picante de Mariscos
The Picante de Moriscos bursted with fresh flavors from the sea and was enrobed in a spicy cream sauce, served with rice and deftly fried yucca. 
Saltado de Carne
The Saltado de Carne, which is tenderloin stir fried with onions, garlic, tomatoes, and cilantro has left me wanting to have this dish again. The flavors are terrific. 

Tres Leches Cake
That evening we finished the meal with a most different version of the South American sensation, Tres Leches Cake. It was layered with a filling that was described as fruit based. I am somewhat of a Tres Leches aficionado and I have to say  I found it absolutely delicious. It's unusual to find a layered Tres Leches rendition and especially one so moist. 

It was inevitable that I had to make a return visit to Aji, so within about two weeks I was back, this time with my dear friend and fellow foodie Susan Poe in tow. 

One of the most refreshing drinks I've ever had is a Chicha Morada and it's made from purple corn. I had never heard of it, but it's such a surprising mix of flavors including hints of cinnamon and fruits. I have asked Pilar to please bottle and sell this elixir. You must try one when you visit! There are also many fresh Peruvian juice drinks on offer. 
Fried Pork Sandwich
I couldn't deny Susan the opportunity to try the Causitas, and they were just as good if not better than what I remembered from my first visit. But I was anxious to sink my teeth into one of the Peruvian sandwiches on the menu. I chose the fried pork. The pork is not breaded. It is simply deep fried and layered with thinly sliced sweet potato slices and salsa criolla. Trust me on this one. 
Spaghetti Huanciana
Susan opted for a very festively colored pasta dish, that was 

topped with the aforementioned beef saltado, so how bad could it be?! The sauce gets it's vibrant color from cilantro and a Huancaina sauce. I feared it would be pasty but it was smooth and silky with an unusual hint of evaporated milk that mellowed out the flavors. 

Chocolate Cake with dulce de leche filling
Once again desert was unavoidable. This apparent Peruvian specialty marries a dense chocolate layer cake with dulce de leche and a thick creamy chocolate frosting. If I had to do it again, I would have ordered a tall glass of cold milk to go with it.

All in all Aji Peruvian Cafe is a small local restaurant that brings something different to the neighborhood. There isn't a plethora of Peruvian restaurants in Houston and I welcome this newcomer whole heartedly. 

Ahi does not however come onto the scene without a touch of controversy. The chef and some three employees who are all quite happily turning out dish after dish to locals and Peruvians from all parts of town used to work at another much larger Peruvian restaurant called Latin Bites. Co-Owner of Latin Bites, Carlos Ramos has made accusations in an actual press release that Aji has allegedly copied many of Latin Bites' recipes. Having researched Peruvian cuisine in the last few weeks it is my opinion that both restaurants serve traditional Peruvian dishes and that's where the similarities end. I don't believe Aji's meager eight tables could possibly be a threat to the few other Peruvian restaurants in town.  

If you live in West Houston Aji Peruvian Cafe should be on your restaurants to try in 2015 list. Maybe they should be on your list even if you don't live nearby. 

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