I’m a really, really chagrined to say it, but this is a review I should have written 15 years ago. While I don’t live in D.C., I get back there on business a few times a year. One of the best things about it is that I get to see old friends–and El Chalan’s menu and staff are old friends. I visit every single time I’m in Washington—in good years, maybe 2-3 times, in bad years maybe once—but I always go—it’s at the top of my favorite places to eat in the District. My pilgrimages to the best Peruvian food in the nation’s capital began well over 15 years ago. So from that, you can gather that I’ve been there roughly well over two dozen times. Further, when I travel, it’s common to have a work colleague along—and I drag them there too. While honestly most have been reluctant; most have been pleasantly surprised—and I have yet to have any of them tell me they didn’t enjoy it. Truthfully, most of them remember it for years, because it’s that far off their well-beaten culinary paths, that they make note of it. Further, I almost always see a table of the local Latin American crowd (diplomats, expats, & first-generation)—so that oughta tell you something too. So, hopefully having established the context for the high marks, let’s get down to specifics. El Chalan is near 19th and I Street and best accessible by Metro (Farragut West or Macpherson Square both work well). It’s located ‘below ground’ /basement level which may seem odd, but it’s rustic/peasant semi-elegant inside with old ‘icon-ish’ religious paintings and Peruvian murals on the walls and classy presentations at the table (i.e., real cloth tablecloths and napkins). Definitely a place to take a date or new friend if you want to impress (I did, and it’s still going strong after 7 years!). That said, I've gone solo, with co-workers, and with friends. It fits everyone equally well (perhaps it's not the place to take small children, but I have seen them there). Moving forward, they have a solid, fairly diverse wine selection and do the standard mixed drinks as well. The Peruvian Pisco Sour (mixed drink) is a far more refreshing and far better tasting alternative to assembly-line Mid-Atlantic versions of south-of-the-border blended Margaritas. They have a small beer selection which does include a Peruvian pilsner-style brew—as a bit of beer snob, it’s not especially notable, but it’s unique since it’s from… Peru. Here, it is important to interject—Peruvian food is NOT Mexican food. It doesn’t look like it and it doesn’t taste like it. It’s more hearty beef/chicken/fish and potatoes/rice type-fare with flavorful, but not necessarily hot, spices (there’s a fairly hot sauce that accompanies a few dishes, but it’s on the side). Bread, butter and the spicy dipping sauce start things off. There are about dozen or so appetizers selections to choose from including ceviches, some other small-portioned seafood starters, sliced baked potatoes done a couple of ways, anticuchos (thin sliced grilled beef hearts), and a good number of mixed salads and soups. Note: their menu is on-line and is adequately descriptive. I love the ceviche mixto, the papas rellenas and the anticuchos (my favorite—do not be put off—they’re phenomenal). The entrees include house specialties like lomo saltado especial (filet mignon done in a Peruvian style—sliced, grilled filet with potatoes, rice, grilled onions, peppers) and a goat stew (interesting and tasty). They have a good number of exotic sounding, but totally safe dishes that quite honestly will please most palates—adventurous to timid. There are some good desserts, but my favorite is the rice pudding—smooth and creamy with a hint of spice—really nice—essentially, I find it irresistible! Plus, excellent, attentive service that doesn’t crowd you; no crazy loud traditional music or wacky plate throwing; and no long waits. Not sure if they do reservations, but I’ve never needed them. Typical meal for two with drinks, appetizers, entrees, desserts, coffee, tip, etc. will probably put you up at around $100-$120. I tend to go nuts since I can’t eat there as often as I like, so my tab tends to go a bit higher—then again, I have to be rolled out of there on most occasions, having ridiculously stuffed myself until I’m about to cry. To sum it up, if you’ve never tried Peruvian, you’re missing a real treat. Highly recommend!
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