Commander in Chifa
Chinese restaurants can be found in every corner of the world, but that doesn't mean they all serve the same thing. Every nation demands its own version of Chinese food, adapted for local tastes by cooks who know how to make do with available ingredients. Cuba loves stir-fries, for example, substituting slivered cucumbers and Maggi for the originally unavailable bean sprouts and soy sauce. Chinese-American contributions include chop suey, egg foo yong, and General Tso's chicken. Indian-Chinese restaurants—of which NYC now has several—emphasize ginger, garlic, and lots of chiles. Known as chifas, Peruvian-Chinese eateries provide their own quirky take on Far Eastern fare.
Chinese immigrants arrived in Lima late in the 19th century as agricultural workers. The word "chifa" is probably a corruption of the Mandarin words for fried rice. Indeed, fried rice (arroz chaufa) and lo mein (tallarin) occupy the cuisine's soft and savory center. New York has had a small collection of authentic chifas started by Peruvians for at least 20 years, and these modest cafés offer what might seem like a retrograde 1920s Cantonese bill of fare, reminding you of our neighborhood Chinese in its oldest and creakiest outer-borough incarnations. But now an ambitious new place has appeared among the car lots and big-box stores of Northern Boulevard in Jackson Heights, known as Chifa Restaurant.
The dining room is deep and quasi-elegant: Modern light fixtures provide a subdued glow, a scattering of nondescript art enlivens pinkish walls, and austere white cloths cover every table. These will inevitably be drenched in brown gravy before you depart. Prepare to use a fork instead of chopsticks, and drink plenty of water, because the food is as salty as an immigrant's tears. Although the heart of the menu is standard chifa fare reproduced in slightly upscale renditions, the endless document also covers mainstream Peruvian, Chinese-American, modern Cantonese, and the inevitable spice-rubbed rotisserie chickens. There is even a smattering of Japanese dishes.
First, let's look at the standard chifa stuff. Do you like wontons? With a comically small wad of pork filling, the ones done here are huge and deep-fried. Accompanied by a sweet red dip, the six ($6.95) make an agreeable shared snack in a trashy sort of way. But avoid at all costs kam lu wantan ($13.95), a house special that embeds these crisp dumplings like semiprecious jewels in a heap of shrimp, pork, chicken, onions, pea pods, carrots, and—yikes!—canned pineapple. For some unfathomable reason the mass is tinted an alarming pink, even though the tamarind sauce ought to be copper-colored.
Better to go with the arroz chaufa called aeropuerto ($6.95), so named because a Chinese restaurant near the Lima airport invented it in 1935. The tangled mass of rice and rice noodles comes dotted with garlicky chicken tidbits. Damn good, though it might remind you of Rice-a-Roni. Chifa also excels in the classic tallarines, using a delicate wheat noodle something like ramen. Identified with a former Portuguese island near Macao, tallarin Taypa ($14.95) tops a giant wad of noodles with beef, chicken, pork, quail eggs, green bell peppers, onions, carrots, mushrooms, and broccoli. Is a pattern becoming evident? The best productions of the chifa here involve an all-hands-on-deck approach, demonstrating a certain generosity of spirit on the part of the cook, but also a total indifference to nuance. When a tallarin is in the offing, the door of the pantry flies open.
Also available from a half-dozen storefronts nearby Roosevelt Avenue, the standard Peruvian roast chicken found at Chifa is sadly so-so. (The fragrant spice rub is said to be another legacy of Chinese immigration.) Of course, the creamy green sauce known as aji verde comes alongside, and you might want to order a chicken just to get some. What's in it? Cilantro, green chiles, garlic, and mayo. Other mainstream Peruvian recipes fare better, including an aquarium-size ceviche ($10.95) containing multiple forms of pre-cooked seafood sided with boiled yams and corn nuts; and the wonderful lomo saltado, a wild combo of tender beef and pale french fries dripping brown gravy.
Skip the Japanese teriyaki in favor a single simple dish. Nabo encurtido ($3.50) is a razor-thin daikon pickle in a sweet vinaigrette, with a few slices of jalapeño tossed on top. Not only is it particularly good, you'll find yourself nibbling it between bites of tallarin and arroz chaufa. It's probably better for you than another crunchy wonton.
For more food coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.
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