Chicago has experienced a wave of upscale, innovative house-made condiments, but some of our favorites come from humbler spots with deep cultural roots. Here are five favorite house-made condiments. They reflect my love of garlic, robust chiles and pungent flavors, which may not please every palate.
Salsa de aji verde
Ay Ay Picante
4569 N. Elston Ave.; 773-427-4239, ayaypicante.com
Served with: A basket of bread and butter.
But try it with ... Any of the Peruvian dishes on the menu, including stuffed potatoes and ceviche.
Takeaway: $6 for a 16-ounce container.
This creamy, hot sauce arrives on many local Peruvian tables with a basket of sliced French bread. The fiery, garlicky sauce ignites just about anything it touches, warning you to stay away just as it beckons you to taste it again. Owner Jaime Bardales says the sauce blends jalapenos (a substitute for Peruvian aji peppers), garlic, onions and oil. The finished product may look green and as harmless as Kermit the frog, but it bites. It bites hard.
Editorial Review of Ay Ay Picante Peruvian Cuisine
You do not have to be hip to Peruvian cuisine to understand you're experiencing top-notch authenticity at Ay Ay. Adjacent, regular diners might divulge the drinking capabilities of the lime juice and rocoto chile sauce that soaks about its ceviches. And every once in a while, a flaming whoosh from the kitchen will reveal actual Peruvian chefs behind the stove. But any blind poke at the menu will exude the region this still secret of a BYOB is set in.
The tricky part is that region is a hodgepodge of fusion, brought on by all the cultures that tried to take it over – African, Japanese, Arab, Italian, Chinese and most importantly, Spanish. So it's not uncommon to see pesto-sauteed pasta dishes next to soy-sauced fried rice medleys, finished off with seared tilapia in a red wine sauce.
However, pre-Columbian days, the Peruvians were one of the first people in the world to domesticate corn, avocados, potatoes and chiles. And they're everywhere, in glorious fashion, all over the menu; mashed with mayonnaise, shredded chicken and green peas aloft velvety half-avocados (palta rellena), ground into sweet cinnamon and raisin dotted tamales (humita dulce), steamed with cheese and yellow pepper cream sauce aside grilled steak (papas a la diabla con bistec). And rice. Everything comes with a side of rice.
The 'secret' and 'glorious' nods are mostly for the cost of all this, at around $7 for entradas (small plates) and $14 for entrees. But once you're under the candle-flick shadows of Nazca murals, and the bread and aji sauce hit the table seconds after an attentive server explains what aji sauce is, it will all make sense.
Start off with palta rellena, essentially a half avocado stuffed with potatoes embedded with peas and shredded chicken. Ceviche offers an assortment of seafood ‐ such as shrimp, octopus, calamari and tilapia ‐ marinated in lime juice and Peruvian rocoto chiles. It's served with ‐ no surprise ‐ two kinds of potatoes and corn.
Peru, like America, is a melting pot of culture. In addition to indigenous cultures, native Africans, Chinese and Japanese also set down roots. (In fact, Peru has more Chinese restaurants than any other country in Latin America.) Ay Ay Picante features this heritage by rounding out its menu with a selection of Chinese Peruvian-style beef fried rice and soy-sauced noodle dishes. If you're looking for something more traditional, you'll find plenty of ceviche and seafood dishes, along with enormous platters of fried steak served with arroz blanco. BYOB.
Variations on a theme Ceviche gives chefs a canvas for creativity
Ay Ay Picante Peruvian Cuisine, 4569 N. Elston Ave., 773-427-4239. You'll find three varieties of ceviche here, including a version with tilapia and (ultra spicy!) Peruvian rocoto chiles ($8.90-$12.90)
Ay Ay Picante
4569 North Elston Avenue
Calling all spudsters. Potatoes originated in Peru and the good folks over at Ay Ay Picante—an open kitchen storefront with wall designs of pre-Columbian glyphs—know exactly what to do with them. Ocopa, boiled potatoes topped with cheese sauce, Peruvian black mint, and walnuts, tastes marvelous ($6.50). Papas rellenas, deep-fried mashed potatoes stuffed with savory beef and raisins ($6), also delight. Zesty seviche de pescado comes with corn, onions, and boiled potatoes ($9.90), and rich marinated beef heart shish kebab ($6) with—you guessed it—boiled potatoes. For dessert—a fine wedge of flan—not a tuber in sight. BYO.
Ay Ay Picante
4569 N. Elston Ave. • 773-427-4239 • $$
This authentic Peruvian restaurant on the north side brings
you a vast and diverse menu showcasing the delights of
Peru. Jaime Bardales and Camucha Bardales ensure that
their guests receive exceptional service and delicious
cuisine including the house specialty: a variety of seafood
dishes. You can also select from beef and chicken entrées,
appetizers, soups and sweet scrumptious desserts. Experience
this exquisite and timeless cuisine tonight.
Try this taste of South America--in Chicago
The restaurant: Ay Ay Picante Peruvian Cuisine, 4569
N. Elston Ave., 773-427-4239
The food: Rice, beans, meats, stews (called ajis and
made with cilantro and walnuts), noodles, Chinese-like
fried rices, ceviches, beef heart skewers, stuffed and
Standout dish: Lomo saltado is a much beloved Peruvian
dish of beef loin strips, onions and tomatoes sauteed
together and topped with thick french fries. This hearty
meal is even better when topped with a little creamy
chile-spiked sauce that's also called aji (and pronounced,
Wash it down with: Inca Kola, a super sweet yellow
soda that tastes like bubble gum.
The hearty, aromatic dishes at this Peruvian BYOB restaurant are sure to please the meat, sauce and stew lover in you. But arrive prepared to eat, as nibbling is not an option. Get off to a hot start with the tamale appetizer, brimming with chicken and olives in a soft cornmeal and banana leaf shell, or cool down with boiled potatoes served chilled in a sauce of fresh mint, walnuts and cheese.
It's easy to gorge on the appetizers, but save room for the truly enormous entrees (average $11-$13): The Peruvian-spiced sirloin steak consumes the entire plate, covering a mound of homemade fries beneath it, and the shredded chicken with creamy walnut sauce and a side of rice is loaded with poultry. Traditional Peruvian desserts are available, but if you've reached the "unbutton the pants" zone, polish off the meal with Inka Cola, a sweet Peruvian soda that tastes like bubble gum.