Big flavors and a buoyant vibes define El Pio Peruvian Restaurant, aspiring to be a keeper in a storefront space that can't seem to hold on to a restaurant for long.
This one, though, seems perpetually bustling. One night, with Peruvian music playing on the TV in the dining room, nobody at my table misses a beat - especially when it comes to eating.
Take heart and order anticuchos, a traditional Peruvian appetizer of grilled marinated beef hearts; they're smoky and slightly chewy but more tender than you'd imagine. Seviche mixto features an assortment of shellfish in a lemony marinade. In a similar vein, there's "leche de tigre," a martini glass of seviche "juice" and diced fish. Another attractive appetizer: causa rellana - mashed potatoes stuffed with chicken or tuna salad.
A mere $25 can feed four in the combo that includes a spice-infused whole rotisserie-roasted chicken with salad, rice and beans, preceded by an appetizer of salchipapa, fried hot dog slices and fries.
A Chinese influence is evident in many Peruvian specialties, among them chaufa "Guilianos" - fried rice with chicken, beef, pork and shrimp. Tallarin con pollo entrozos is a South American version of lo mein done with Chinese noodles, chicken chunks and vegetables in a slightly sweet brown sauce. The dish is not only delicious but immense.
The Peruvian stir-fry called lomo saltado includes vegetables and a choice of beef, shrimp or chicken. I tried it with beef (slightly fibrous) and liked it. I was even more taken with the tender, homey beef stew (seco de carne), served with rice and beans.
At once hearty and delicate, pescado encebollado con papas y arroz stars filet of tilapia sauteed with tomatoes and onion, served with rice and potatoes.
Finish with flan or tres leches cake, both from an outside bakery.
Fries are the previously frozen variety and unworthy of attention. House-made purple corn pudding is soupy, heavily clove-scented.
Overall: Major goodness at minor expenditure.