JALEA PERUVIAN CUISINE
251 W. Old Country Rd., Hicksville
SERVICE: Helpful despite the language barrier
AMBIENCE: Quiet and nondescript, TVs tuned to soccer at the bar, Food Network in the dining room
ESSENTIALS: Lunch and dinner, Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., Sunday noon to 10 p.m.; credit cards, wheelchair accessible
Fried seafood has found a home on Long Island in many forms: American Ipswich clams, Italian fritto misto and Japanese tempura are just a few dishes that populate restaurant menus.
In Hicksville, Jalea, the latest restaurant to join the Island’s burgeoning Peruvian dining scene, demonstrates that. With 1,500 miles of coastline, Peru has fish, crustaceans and squid, and chefs who know how to drop them in piping-hot oil.
To tell you just how serious they are about frying, Jalea has named itself after Peru’s signature tower of fried seafood, served over crunchy batons of fried yucca, paired with zarza criolla, a tart relish of thin-sliced onions and cilantro marinated in lime juice.
Here, the dish anchors a menu of largely traditional fare, a subtly spiced, addictively crisp medley of calamari, half-shelled clams and nuggets of fish that come in two main-course sizes — a modest “classica” or the mountainous “ejecutiva.” There’s also an appetizer fish-only version, called chicharron de pescado, with a surprising take-away: Yes, it is possible to have a good fish nugget.
The relish sets the dish apart from its fried seafood cousins, diplomatically tempering the salt and grease to keep you coming back for more. It’s hard not to resist every piece, even from the largest platter, despite knowing more food is on the way.
Located in a nondescript shopping plaza along a busy stretch of Old Country Road, Jalea has about 40 seats between the dining room and the bar, which for now remains bare as the restaurant waits to secure its liquor license.
Get past this and you’ll leave with a lesson in the complexities of Peruvian fare, a melting pot of influences that include indigenous Inca combined with centuries of settlers and immigrants from Spain and Italy to China, Japan and West Africa.
No Peruvian restaurant would be complete without rotisserie chicken, which comes in quarter, half or whole-bird portions of tender, well-seasoned meat, but at Jalea it lacks the crisp skin you’ll find in other spots.
Instead, let loose on the menu and you’ll find lots of success. Make sure to have plenty of aji present, a garlicky green aioli laced with heat that arrives shortly after you’re seated. You’ll find there’s little that’s not transformed by a dip or a dollop.
Be warned, the hearty bowls of soup, like many of the appetizers, are enough for a meal. The aguadito de pollo comes with bobbing pieces of tender chicken and rice in a rich cilantro-tinged broth. Chupe de pescado is the Peruvian equivalent to a buttery chowder, loaded with delicately poached filets of white fish and hard-boiled egg.
Antichuchos, beef hearts tenderized in a marinade of vinegar, garlic and spices, take their cue from street food. The meat comes skewered on a metal stick and tears tender whether you order it grilled medium or medium-rare. (Paging Cupid, break out the yellow arrow. The hearts will make the skittish converts.)
Ceviches, raw fish “cooked” in a citrus marinade, are heavy on the lime juice, overpowering the sea bass in the classico de pescado, while complementing the ceviche mixto, a mix of fluke, shrimp, calamari and octopus.
Arroz chaufa carne o pollo, a Peruvian-style fried rice, shows Peru’s Chinese settlers have been great tutors. Here, savory kernels of soy sauce-colored rice come studded with scallions, eggs and bite-sized hunks of chewy beef.
A dish that I hope can be fixed is bistec o lo pobre, a steak topped with a sunny-side up egg that had me nostalgic for other Latin-centric versions of rustic cuts of beef topped with a pair of runny eggs. In a good version, you break the yolk and the steak is coated in a creamy sauce. On two visits to Jalea, the steak was dry, the yolks stiff.
Clearly, the meat of choice at Jalea comes from the sea.