Intrigued by the conversation earlier this week, a small group of chowhounds had a lavish lunch at La Furia Chalaca in Oakland's Jack London Square district.
Alexandra (who started it all!), Melanie Wong, Jennifer Fish Wilson and I brought along our appetites and managed to sample three appetizers and three entrees (which also came with bread and house-made chicken noodle soup). We were there from 11:45 to 1:45, and with one exception were the only customers (I've been by there in the evening, though, when they had live music, and the place was hopping)!
Not only is La Furia Chalaca Peruvian, but *regional* Peruvian. According to the menu, the name of the restaurant translates loosely as "The Spirit of Callao" (a port city that is the center of the Peruvian fishing industry). The menu also explains that "political conditions in Peru forced the migration of northern fisherman to Callao many years ago." Thus the cuisine of this city has its roots in northern Peruvian traditions. Finally, the menu states that the restaurant celebrates the family's northern Peruvian cultural heritage and long tradition of fisherman and seafood restaurants.
With that, you'd think the seafood dishes would be good, and our experience bore that out. The standout of the entrees was the Jalea Especiales. Melanie described it as a "riot of colors" with "a little bit of everything": a flavorful fish fillet was at the bottom of a pile that included small pieces of squid, prawns, a couple of mussels in the shell, and slaw-like topping of marinated thin-sliced red onion, cabbage, fine diced celery and tomato and maybe some peppers. Around the rim of the dish were a couple of slices of carmelized plantain, a couple of wedges of sweet potato and a couple of wedges of yucca. The dish was finished with toasted dried corn kernels and a lime dressing. The portion was definitely big enough to share.
Less successful was the Carapulcra a la Limena (braised pork in a mild sauce with Andean dried potatoes (papas secas)), which we all found bland. The papas secas were in little nuggets that reminded me of a cross between gnocchi and hominy -- starchy but not very interesting. We also tried the Lomo Saltado (sirloin tips sauteed with onions, tomatoes and seasonings tossed with french fries and served with rice). Melanie has been eating a lot of Peruvian food recently and remarked on the distinct soy sauce flavor in this and similar Peruvian dishes, and I had to agree. Anyone know if they are using soy sauce, or if some other combination of seasonings is producing the same taste? Melanie thought it was too salty, and I thought it was just not very interesting compared to the fish dish.
Or perhaps we'd been spoiled for beef by the appetizer of Antichuchos (grilled marinated beef heart). Both Alexandra and I were feeling a little squeamish about eating heart, but we both dug in and were rewarded by the explosion of rich grilled beef flavor. The orange/red dipping sauce that came with it was also delicious and quite hot (a surprise to me since I've heard Peruvian food is not generally very spicy). The appetizer portion of two huge skewers was plenty for the four of us.
The papa rellena -- a baseball-sized fritter of mashed potato stuffed with ground beef and fried -- was another surprisingly flavorful dish, especially drizzled with the bright yellow lemon-onion sauce that accompanied it.
The third appetizer was the tamales peruanos, with pale green panca chili-flavored masa and a diced chicken filling. Aside from thinking it was moist but not soggy or heavy nothing stood out about this dish -- I think the anticuchos pretty much put the more subtle dishes in the shade.
We washed it down with chicha morada (purple corn juice with bits of fresh apple) that was refreshing and not too sweet, and Inca Kola -- a bright yellow drink that I think I heard Melanie use the term "bubble gum" to describe.
This feast (more than we could eat) came to $17/person with tax and a generous tip (Alexandra, Jennifer has your change). The price reflects the fact they don't have a separate lunch menu, and portions are definitely full sized.
As we were settling up I decided I couldn't resist getting an alfajores (a traditional Peruvian cookie consisting of two butter-cookie-like discs sandwiching a cajeta/duche de leche filling). Melanie ascertained that the alfajores are made in house. The cookie layers had a slightly gritty texture -- cornmeal perhaps? -- it was delicious (my first alfajores, but not my last!).
In short: go! We had three of the four appetizers and I'd order any of them again. The Jalea Especiales was indeed "special" which suggests the other fish dishes might be good bets. Mark Wallace has had some good experiences with non-fish entrees as well.