I hate people who are not serious about their meals. -- Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Aguas Calientes: Happy Indians and Chifa food

Om Nomz Hero Note to Self: Politically incorrectness and good food have a direct correlation

The Main Square

I feel like I am at Epcot when I take the bus down from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes. The main strip of the town seems to picturesque almost artificial. There is a river raging and vast bridges spanning over it. The streets are suspiciously clean and the town square has 2 statues of Inca-like people and people posing with them making moronic gestures that question if natural selection is still in effect. In short, Aguas Calientes is a tourist town. Walking down the main strip you are ambushed by waiters urging and practically trying to drag you into their nearly empty restaurants promising you free wi-fi, pisco sours and pizza. If I had more time I probably would actually try the pizza here. There is something about pizza in Peru I un-scientifically noticed that they love it here and it is quite a seller. Navigating around this town and finding good food for a respectable price is hard. Before coming here, trying to find any restaurant recommendations was near impossible but even in a tourist hot spot, not everyone is demanding tomato Bolognese and spaghetti. So for my one day in Aguas Calientes and my first meal, I went to Indio Feliz. 

Has to be good, the dude is smiling!
I have come to accept political correctness is not a big thing abroad so the name translating to “Happy Indian” did not faze me that much. What did faze me was the décor. It was like walking into a flamboyant pirate bar. The interior design was nautical and the only thing that seemed Peruvian was the Peruvian flute music playing in the background. It was the first time I heard “Killing me Softly” done up Peruvian flute style, it was quite soothing but I like the original better. Despite the décor, it felt cozy and after trekking the trail for the past couple days, it was comfortable enough for me to decompress and get a good meal.

Food Porn after the jump!
Very uhhh....French?

The food is a far cry from the décor because it was serving French dishes with little Latin/Peruvian twists. The place was also well priced, costing only 54 Soles for a pre fixe 3 course meal. 

Fresh Bread and Butter. I am not ashamed to say I ate it all
The bread was freshly baked, and one of the most foodtastic porn sights is when you rip open a piece of bread and a puff of steam comes out. Disturbingly, it is like you are killing the bread and the puff of steam is that last breathe of air escaping. Wow…I apologize for such a graphic description but eating a fresh roll with a crock of fresh churned butter is simply a magical combination. I have not showered in a couple days, I am exhausted and dirty, and all I had was a Snickers bar and a Clif bar three hours ago, bread and butter never gave me such satisfaction. 

Peruvian Creole Soup
I started off with the Peruvian Creole Soup served with a bowl of Llama cheese. I do not know what was Creole about it but the soup tasted good. It was a simple vegetable soup made with cabbage, potatoes and carrots making it a hearty soup. The soup came with a small bowl of aji peppers, which I dumped all into the soup and a bowl of Llama cheese to add in as well. The llama cheese does not really melt in the soup but it brings a nice textural and saltiness contrast and the added heat from the peppers made it a comforting dish.

Salmon with a Spicy Sauce- It rained parsley too apparently
Next up was the main course which was Salmon with a Spicy Sauce. I started laughing when this got brought out. I attribute this to lack of sleep and the combination of old school nostalgia but the dish had a sickly dandruff like sprinkling of parsley all over it. It had the classic lemon cut wedge type of deal and had a baked tomato with parsley. It was something out of a hotel-French culinary school and I loved it. I have only seen such presentations in pictures and on TV and gave me the same level of joy like I rediscovered my old set of POGs or finding a can of Tab soda. Regardless of the fu-fu presentation, it was a good dish. The Salmon fillet was flaky and soft and the skin had a dry crisp, resonated sound execution. The spicy sauce was more like a bruschetta but worked accordingly with the fish. The potato chips on the side were freshly cut and fried, like I burned the roof of my mouth while eating them. They were crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside and I devoured them.
Lastly was dessert which was an orange pie with ice cream.

Orange Pie with orange creme anglaise and orange ice cream

Many worried that being on the trail for so long, I would not have enough vitamin C. This dessert took care of that. The orange pie was served with an orange crème angalse and a side of orange ice cream. If I had any worries of developing scurvy, I need not to worry anymore. Despite the orange blitzkrieg, it was good ending to a great meal. The orange pie was warm and custardy with a bit of coconut, was like the gastronomic equivalent of slipping on a warm pair of socks. The crème anglase pooled at the bottom of the plate and the cool orange ice cream brought varying degrees of temperatures and tasted good. Plus, I like oranges so this worked out for me.

River runs through it

I walked around Aguas Calientes and it is quite a pretty town and have a big artisanal market and I did the whole souvenir buying and bargaining for the afternoon. I was thankfully able to find some street food of more picarones and antichuos but that will be saved for my street food post. Our tickets had us on the 7:24pm train so that meant either getting a sandwich to go or getting an early dinner. Given I could not get a pastrami on rye here I opted to find a place to eat. I almost went back to Indio Feliz to eat there again but I decided to try out some of the Chifa places here. Me being…well me I walked around the local resident neighborhood and hung about the soccer field where I found previous mentioned street food. When I asked the picarones lady what was a good place to eat and guess because I was Asian, I naturally want Chinese food, suggested I go try the Chifa place located by the square. Walking away, wondering if I should be offended (I was not), I decided that I wanted to try Chifa food anyways to go and try it out. 

Good deal or offensive?
Peru apparently has a large Chinese community and what resulted was Chinese food that catered to the Latin plate and called Chifa, which is a bastardized translation of the Chinese phrase, “chi fun” (excuse my butchered ping ying) which meaning to eat. From observations and my dabbling of Chifa cuisine, it is like American Chinese food, but sweeter and less saltier and lots of peanuts added into certain dishes. People with peanut allergies, you have been forewarned. After much deliberation on what to get I decided to order the spring rolls and the Kam lu Wontons. Both in prior research I found are unique in Peru and I already had Chifa fried rice on the trail.
The spring rolls came in a nice presentation and with a lot of the faux shrimp chips and a bowl of sweet and sour dipping sauce.

Empanada like Spring Rolls

The Spring rolls were not like any I have ever tasted before. First off, they are not like any spring roll I have encountered, so I guess bravo to that. They looked more like empanadas and the word “roll” is a loosely used adjective in this case. However, I can not confirm, but on close inspection, these spring rolls actually hand signs that it was made by a person, unlike the spring rolls or egg rolls found in Insert cliché Chinese restaurant name here that are clearly frozen and then got the fryer treatment. My next surprise came in how they tasted. I expected on first bite to receive a mouthful of greasy cabbage, red dye no. 5 pork and unidentifiable vegetables but what I got instead was a dainty mouthful of peanuts, cabbage, carrots, scallions and minced pork. 

Sadly like some Chinese food in America, I am not 100% sure what is in this

The filling was wet and the cabbage was still crispy and eating these spring rolls they were surprisingly not leaking with oil like a BP oil tower (too soon?). The sweet and sour sauce was actually light and sweet and was not like the spackle-like cavity inducing sweetness that I was expected. This dish contradicted all preconceived notions of what I expected from this spring roll and Chifa style food. 
I was impressed and shocked, like the guy that first started to wear a ball cap backwards. I was intrigued to try the Kam lu wontons. The dish is fried wontons that are cooked with bits of pork, chicken and duck and all dressed in a sweet and sour sauce. I am not Oliver Twist asking for more when it comes to anything in a sweet and sour sauce. The balance is never right, it has the consistency of rubber cement and that color is not natural at all. It looks like a rejected color from the Crayola factory. However, I set my differences aside and ordered the Kam lu wontons because anything fried cannot taste that horrible. 

Kam lu Wontons- got to give it to them on presentation
First, I will give them a gold star for presentation here. Although the presentation is something from a 1960s era Cantonese restaurant, it is clear they put some effort in putting this together. The fried wontons were unfortunately generic wontons that have a ½ teaspoon of unidentifiable meat and the rest is fried skin. It was at least crispy and again, they have the art of frying down pat and not soggy and clogged with excess grease. There were unidentifiable bits of meat in it that sadly on par with other Chinese restaurants I have visited in the United States but I was able to identify duck. The most enjoyable part of the dish and saved it was the sweet and sour sauce. The slurry was not a cornstarch pool nor was did it have the ubiquitous canned pineapple chunks. The pineapples were actually real and fresh as well as the peppers added to the sauce. This was actually a sauce that relied heavily on the sweetness of the pineapples and the acidity from the vinegar was pleasant and did not make your tongue go numb. The sauce nicely coated the fried wonton pieces and I was overall happy with the outcome of this dish. 
My first experience with Chifa food I will mark down as successful, I ate a good meal, left satisfied and did not get some weird pizza and tried something familiar that was seemingly unfamiliar and left surprised. Even in a town that is for tourist and is a rest stop for Machu Picchu it is still possible to find good food without your wallet loosing a couple of pounds. Next up, Lima where get this, no lima beans!

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