Monday, April 01, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: Piquant Peruvian Food? Ay, Ay

Ay Ay Picante
4569 N. Elston, Chicago
773.427.4239 |

What I ate: Anticuchos (marinated beef hearts), Papas a la Diabla con Bistec (steak with "Devil" potatoes)

The first three months of my Chicago Dining World Tour have proven to be rather satisfying.

So far, across various Chicago neighborhoods, my hometown of Skokie and five other suburbs, I have visited and written about 14 restaurants representing different cuisines and cultures.

(You can scroll through all such stories here. I've eaten some cuisines--like Thai and Cuban--at multiple places, but only wrote about the first one.)

In doing so, I've spotlighted some places I've long enjoyed (Dixie Kitchen, Ruby of Siam, Kabul House, Jamaica Jerk), others that friends & family knew about but I didn't (Tango Sur, The Magic Jug, Tre Kronor) and a few that I only learned about via online research (Pusan, Sariling Atin, Taste of Cuba).

But one particularly enjoyable happenstance that has arisen from this undertaking is how much more acutely I notice ethnic restaurants of all varieties as I meander around Skokie, Chicago and the entire vicinity.

While Mykonos is a Greek restaurant in Niles I had long noted if never previously visited, Ay Ay Picante is purely a case of spotting an interesting restaurant, jotting it down in my iPhone notes and subsequently making a point of going there.

A few weeks back, my friend Ken and I had gone to Smoque, one of my favorite BBQ joints in the area. Though I probably could have written about it as an American or barbecue entry, it didn't seem exotic enough, but I highly recommend the Chopped Brisket sandwich.

Smoque is at 3800 N. Pulaski, which I think may be in the Old Irving Park neighborhood. At 4569 N. Elston, Ay Ay Picante is a place we noticed in opting for a more scenic route back to Skokie.

Part of why it stood out to me is because the only Peruvian restaurant I'd previously been aware of was Taste of Peru 6545 N. Clark St. I'd eaten there a couple times in years past--I believe I had Paella as my entree, at least once--and while I would've been happy to visit it again, it was nice to know of another option to explore on my Dining Tour.

Especially as Ay Ay Picante proved to be such a piquant choice.

In what appeared to be a well-appointed and lively neighborhood gathering place, Ken, I and another friend, Dave, were able to get a table without waiting at 7:00pm, but may have been out of luck if we came a bit later. Though a few tables turned over while we were there, most of the patrons seemed to be happily settled in for much of the evening.

And the menu was quite extensive; perhaps even a bit too much so. Inserted into the 6-panel regular menu were two more double-sided pages full of choices.

Especially in my attempt to learn more about numerous cuisines, I've become unbashful about asking waiters and waitresses for their recommendations, as well as to help me decipher certain menu options.

Our waiter was rather helpful, including guiding me to dishes that were and weren't so authentically Peruvian. I changed my mind about 3-4 times before ordering and without his assistance, very well may have wound up with something not quite so pleasing.

Arriving first was a basket of delicious, hot-out-of-the-oven bread. It was accompanied by a green sauce called Aji whose exact ingredients I didn't quite catch (jalapenos, garlic and more). Whatever was in it, it was wonderful. It was great on the bread, but also later our steak. 

We started by ordering from the Appetizers (Piqueos, presumably Spanish, but perhaps not) section of the vast menu and with the waiter's advice selected Anticuchos, described as "Two skewers with marinated beef hearts with seared potatoes."

Yes, I was a bit squeamish about what eating a "heart" might mean, but what we got were two skewers of beef that looked roughly like any other and was absolutely tender and tasty. There were 6 pieces total, easy to split three ways, accompanied by one potato. Like our main courses, Dave, Ken and I heartily recommend the Anticuchos.

With credit to Dave for initially honing in on it from the plethora of menu choices, both he and I ordered Papas a la Diabla con Bistec, or "Grilled steak with steamed "Devil" potatoes served with Huancaina - cheese and yellow pepper sauce. Accompanied by white rice."

As you can see at right (or perhaps just above or below on a mobile device), this was essentially a large piece of thin steak, with a ball of rice. It was quite tasty, but while the Huancaina sauce was good, I preferred using more of the Aji.

As did Ken to accompany his Bistec Encenbollado, which was also a large piece of thin steak, but smothered in carmelized onions and sautéed tomatoes. Like Dave and I did with ours, Ken described his entree as "delicious."

Though we were game for dessert, two types of flan and a couple other puffy pastries didn't really sing to any of us, so after Ken enjoyed a cappuccino, we wound up going for ice cream at Margie's Candies.

Peru is, like the rest of South America, a country I have not been to, but would like to visit, especially to see Machu Picchu.

Although Ay Ay Picante wasn't my first taste of Peruvian food, it was an extremely enjoyable one. And until I get to Peru itself, discovering places like this in and around Chicago is proving to be an extremely appetizing "next best thing."

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