At Aji Peruvian Café, Dining Is a Battle Between Expectations and Reality

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Aji Peruvian Café is a bit of a conundrum. Just when you're about to write the place off after a few deeply freezer-burned orders of empanadas, your waiter shows up with a glass of fresh mango juice so utterly brilliant that it takes your breath away. Bright and sunny, yet with a keen edge of turpentine and a lovely black-pepper bite, it's a simple and elemental thing, and completely arresting. Of course, those empanadas were arresting, too, but for far more felonious reasons.

Even setting aside the stale, musty taste of poorly frozen pastry, the empanadas were a grave disappointment. Small, scantily filled and under-seasoned, they felt like highway robbery at their $4-$5 price point. The pot roast filling tasted strongly of grease; the potato casserole version (the most interesting-sounding of the bunch, with its offer of iced Peruvian potatoes mixed with fried pork, peanuts, onions and garlic) was dry and mealy, with only punctuations of red bell pepper to perk it up a bit; ordered out of a sense of obligation, a sort of Peruvian picadillo version fared better on a subsequent visit, absent the freezer burn but still lacking in flavor and with an overly cake-like texture to the pastry. The empanadas make up an entire section of the menu here. I have no idea why.

I do know why the restaurant offers causa, a traditional Peruvian potato casserole of sorts, in several different varieties. Layering pressed yellow potatoes, avocado and chicken salad, dressed with boiled egg and Technicolor drizzles of sauce, causa limeña is like a shaped charge made out of a church picnic. Its gentle pastel palette bursts unexpectedly into an array of textures and flavors. Bright, citrusy potato is buttressed by suave avocado. A mild chicken salad, both layered into the casserole and crowning it, offers richness and texture against the otherwise lush, creamy affair. Mined with little crunchy explosions of celery and red bell pepper amid shreddy bits of chicken, it plays very nicely in that role. Chicken salad, potato salad, deviled eggs: These are touchstones that light up in sense memory as you work your way through the causa, firing in turn and fading into the next. Dip a bite into a sploosh of aceituna sauce, and the brininess leaps forward, rendering here more like capers than olives. That marigold patch of aji amarillo blooms across your tongue, mellow and savory yet with a gently spreading heat. You can also opt for a spread of three individual causas, filled with chicken or seafood salad and presented with three different ajies.

Unfortunately, these causas bring up one spot of trouble. Back in December, a minor kerfuffle erupted over the fact that several of Aji's dishes (the causas among them) bear an uncanny resemblance to those prepared by Roberto Castre at Latin Bites, arguably the most highly regarded Peruvian restaurant in town. Several of Aji's cooks did time in that kitchen, and the similarities have naturally raised some eyebrows. Of course, the notion that a cook won't take his experience with him is a bit of a stretch, and many of the dishes in question are common to the Peruvian canon, even if the specifics of presentation might not be. Whether any of this matters to the individual diner is, well, an individual question. Here, the question is this: Is the food good? If you're paying attention, you've guessed the answer: Sometimes.

It's good in the form of tiradito a los tres ajies, raw fish served with three different aji sauces, each separated into its own sector. Aji amarillo is savory with a nice round bloom and a gentle, spreading heat, cut with fresh tartness and just a hint of key lime bitterness. It's lovely stuff. The aji ocopa has an interesting smoky edge, like a good mezcal. It's rich and nutty, besides. Aji rocoto is rich and earthy, with a fruity bloom. There is a restrained heat throughout, jumped up by that lovely citrus brightness that really grabs you. Green onion provides punctuation, and more nuggets of that firm, starchy Peruvian choclo corn give a nice textural break. There is, perhaps, a bit too much sauce blanketing the fish, which gets somewhat lost in all those big flavors. The ajies are good enough that you might not care.

Not quite as good is the ceviche y jalea, which pits a tumble of deep-fried seafood against raw fish marinated simply in lime and chiles. Despite a slightly heavy hand in the dredge, the fried half of the equation is pretty good, particularly the succulent morsels of scallop. The shrimp is fine, but the squid has an unpleasant texture, like old rubber bands that have finally given up. Not tender, and yet they've lost their spring. A tangle of pickled onions brings a nice tartness but threatens to make everything soggy.

There's a bulwark of nicely fried yucca separating the raw from the cooked, and it somehow benefits from its soaking, remaining crispy on top while sucking up the bracing leche de tigre from the bottom. That leche, the prickly marinade used to denature the fish protein, cooks it, after a fashion. It's surprisingly mild, bright with lime but not much else. Little confetti flecks of chile (red, yellow, green) provide scattered and insufficient jabs of flavor.

For its part, the fish feels a little roughly handled, its proteins a little overly denatured, losing the contrast between "cooked" exterior and tender, moist interior. That half of the plate comes garnished with boiled sweet potato (in contrast to the nearly one-note marinade, it's an almost unpleasantly sweet accompaniment, though it's perfect for an eight-month-old), too many red onions and corn in both nutty roasted and plump choclo varieties. It's not bad, but it's not great. When I want ceviche, I want great. It's a dish that deserves greatness.

For greatness, you might want to look toward the sandwiches. Arguably the best bite on the menu, and one with no analogue over at Latin Bites, the sandwich de chicharrón sounds and tastes a little crazy. Fried pork loin (think carnitas, and you're right on the money) paired with a few plush slices of sweet potato and a smart dousing of citrusy salsa criolla, it's a surprisingly effective mashup of crisp and soft, tangy and sweet, all playing against the deeply savory, roasted punch of pork and fat. More of the pickled red onions the kitchen seems so fond of show up here, adding both another pop of acid and an unexpectedly delicious raw onion bite.

The sandwich de lomo saltado, a semi-portable version of another Peruvian classic (and a testament to one of Peru's many international culinary influences), isn't quite as arresting, though charming in its own way. A simple stir-fry of tender beef, onion and tomato is heaped on a soft bun and glossed with a slick of what tastes like liquid smoke and Maggi seasoning. That's not a bad thing, and the sauce turns the whole affair into a sort of South American/Chinese French dip. You can get the lomo as a plated entrée, too, if you are precious about sticky fingers. It's just as affable sided with rice, though no more exciting. Nods to the multicultural mélange of modern Peruvian food can also be found in an unfortunately heavy fried rice -- arroz chaufa -- (its texture marred by overcooking and its proteins dry) and a surprisingly tasty plate of pasta with Alfredo sauce. I'd skip the shrimp it comes with (there's nothing wrong with it; it just doesn't need to be there), and I wish the kitchen had a lighter hand with the sauce and a shorter timer on the pasta. Those issues aside, the sauce hit all the right notes of salty, nutty cheese and lots of butter.

As for the rest of the entrées, we're back in troubled waters. Stick with the aji de gallina, a sort of nutty stew of shredded chicken that somehow winds up tasting like the best possible version of the chicken and rice soup you ate as a child. Steer clear of the seco de res, even if it comes recommended. What was supposed to be slow-cooked beef eye of round showed up on our table as a couple of fat short ribs, which should have been a nice surprise. It's never a nice surprise when short ribs are cooked long enough to dry out the meat and yet not long enough to convert all the tough collagen into gelatin. That was the unfortunate case here, leaving chewy streaks throughout the meat and missing that sticky, glossy short rib sweet spot entirely. It almost didn't matter what they tasted like, though they didn't taste like much.

There are a couple of Peruvian wines on the menu, which is kind of neat to see. Don't expect fireworks, but for $5, a glass of Intipalka Sauvignon Blanc pairs well enough with the fish preparations, offering just a trace of minerality and some lush stone fruit flavors balanced against just enough acidity to keep pace. The recommended red...isn't. You might want to try a glass of chicha morada, a traditional beverage made from purple corn. It reads like an earthy, fruity, slightly tart take on horchata and is quite captivating.

You won't want to skip dessert, but you will want to stick to the lucuma de tres leches. Combining that most beloved cake with the weird and wonderful lucuma is a stroke of brilliance, even if the cake itself wants a slightly longer soak in order to achieve that perfect point of milky-sweet saturation. The tropical lucuma brings flavors of maple, caramelized sweet potato and toasted marshmallow, creating a somewhat haunting version of a classic dessert.

So we're back at that conundrum. Is Aji a good restaurant? It has one in it, I think. It's a bit hidden, and some of the traps found therein are particularly devilish. My wife was excited about that pot roast -- until she got her wish. I was taken by the description of the potato casserole empanada and deeply disappointed in the reality. The ceviche preparations, arguably the best known of the Peruvian canon, are only so-so. The causas, though? They're terrific and terrific fun. So is that pork sandwich. And I could go for a glass of that mango juice right now. As for Latin Bites? I don't think they have much to worry about.

Aji Peruvian Café 2825 South Kirkwood Road, 281-496-7777. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays through Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays.

Fresh fruit juices $3 Chicha morada $2.50 Intipalka Sauvignon Blanc (glass) $5 Empanadas $4 ($5 for lomo) Papas a la Huancaina $8 Causa limeña $12 Ceviche con jalea $16 Tiradito a los tres ajies $14 Seco de res $14 Aji de gallina $12 Lomo saltado $14 Sandwich de chicharrón $6 Sandwich de lomo saltado $7 Tres leches de lucuma $7

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