As cheese sauces go, Peru’s salsa huancaína — a creamy yellow purée of fresh cheese and fruity ají amarillo chiles — puts our pressurized Cheez Whiz to shame. Traditionally ladled over boiled potatoes, the velvety emulsion might best be described as alfredo with moxie. The same could be said of Erik Ramirez (the moxie part, anyway), the 35-year-old force behind Llama Inn in Williamsburg, who since November has been doling out adroitly translated Andean flavors from a colorfully decorated, high-ceilinged, wedge-shaped space adjacent to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
The first-generation Peruvian-American chef, a former Eleven Madison Park sous, pairs his huancaína with fat fried potato wedges as part of a riff on pollo a la brasa, the heavily spiced rotisserie chicken that’s become as emblematic of Peruvian cuisine stateside as ceviche. With their soft innards, the top-notch potatoes nearly overshadow Ramirez’s carved-up, brined, and smoked bird. Dip both fowl, its crispy skin flavored with blackened chiles, and potatoes into the huancaína, or other condiments made with red rocoto and green ají peppers.
That dish costs $40 for a platter that easily feeds two or three. It finds its match in a similarly hearty, $48 take on lomo saltado, the famous chifa (a colloquial term for Chinese-Peruvian cuisine) recipe of wok-seared beef and french fries, offered here as lush hunks of tenderloin stir-fried with soy sauce, scallions, and red onions. The kitchen blankets the beef with fries doused in rocoto chile cream, swapping out the traditional accompanying white rice for a side stack of thin, crisp scallion pancakes that diners turn into DIY steak roll-ups. Layer your lomo with slices of avocado, pickled chiles, and as much extra rocoto crema as you care to force out of the squeeze bottle. “Eat it like a taco,” Ramirez suggests to a trio seated in front of him, who minutes before watched, rapt, as his wok shot flames a foot into the air. Both of these ingenious interpretations are reason enough to pay Llama Inn a visit — though given how irreproachable they are, it’s almost cruel not to offer them as entrées for solo diners.
The rest of Ramirez’s menu, comprising a dozen or so small-to-medium plates, is more delicate and divvied up by focus: vegetables, fish, meat, and a quartet of intensely flavored skewers. The latter are seared on a Japanese robatayaki grill and range from straightforward head-on shrimp sizzling with adobo spice to Chinese-style glazed pork belly crowned with pickled chiles, spicy mayo, and pork rinds. All four are worth ordering, including beef hearts tarted up with rocoto salsa and chicken thighs slathered in green ají (a small consolation to those who can’t or won’t spring for the big bird).
From a modest, open kitchen, Ramirez expands on the tastes of his childhood, focusing on technique. Huacatay, or Peruvian black mint, seasons slices of pork shoulder mellowed with yogurt and teased with pickled fruit. The kitchen perks up an otherwise boring beet salad with another minty herb, muña. Plantains (the sweet ones fried, the green ones turned into chips) accent pieces of golden tilefish marinated in dashi-spiked, citrusy leche de tigre, making for surprisingly complex ceviche. Even quinoa, the ancient grain that’s practically as much a staple of Brooklyn as South America these days, gets a star turn thanks to bananas and bacon.
A slew of gratifying sweets is on offer too: donuts to drag through pools of chancaca, a raw sugarcane syrup, and ice-cold scoops of sorbet made from pulpy cherimoya fruit. Another Andean specialty, the cinnamon-laced frozen treat queso helado, makes a strong case for the pleasures of condensed milk. Spooned over bread pudding, it’s certifiably comforting. Lynnette Marrero, co-founder of the all-female bartender competition Speed Rack, and Jessica Gonzalez, formerly head bartender at the NoMad, serve up stiff drinks, including the sangria-like “Llama Del Ray,” a mix of pisco, red wine, purple corn juice, and rum; the latter is offered on tap and should be approached with caution.
Four years ago, Gastón Acurio, Peru’s world-renowned, empire-building culinary ambassador, tried and failed to tempt New Yorkers with a ceviche-centric Flatiron clubstaurant that fizzled out in a year. Llama Inn, with its charmingly kooky camelid mascot, Larry (“It’s just kind of this funny, Jewy old man’s name,” our waitress giggled), and spirited yet casual sensibilities, feels well suited to the neighborhood — and for carrying the modern Peruvian torch in New York.
50 Withers Street, Brooklyn