By Vickie Lewis
In my experience, it is uncommon to find a restaurant that specializes in two very different types of cuisine from not only different countries, but also different continents. Therefore, I was intrigued when I learned that El Chalan Restaurant offers both Peruvian and Italian food. So when I met co-owner, Xiomara Martinez, the first question I asked was “Why Peruvian and Italian?
When Xiomara’s husband and restaurant co-owner, Aquiles Puga, first immigrated to the United States from Peru in 1992, he worked for twelve years at an Italian restaurant in Berkeley which has since closed. During his employment there, he learned much about the art of Italian cooking. In Peru, he had also worked in the restaurant business and had learned to prepare many of the traditional foods of his country. So when he and Xiomara opened El Chalan restaurant thirteen years ago, they decided to offer both Peruvian and Italian cuisine on their menu. Although the menu features more Peruvian selections, there are sixteen Italian entrees offered at El Chalan (including Aquiles’ hand-made gnocchi), as well as a limited selection of Italian salads, Italian beverages, and even home-made Tiramisu! The Peruvian selections tend to be more popular since most of El Chalan’s regular clientele is Latino; more of their American customers tend to favor the Italian cuisine.
Located on busy San Pablo Dam Road on the right side of the street when driving toward Appian Way, El Chalan occupies the previous establishment once known as El Tumi Restaurant. The exterior signage atop the building directs customers to a small parking lot adjacent to the building. When entering El Chalan, the atmosphere seems “homey” and a bit rustic. There are twelve to fifteen tables in the dining area, where the pale orange, melon-color walls are adorned with pictures of cowboys and their horses, (as “El Chalan” means “The Cowboy”.) Lighted ceiling fans supplement the natural light from the large front windows which are embellished with white café curtains. A flat screen television hangs on the wall but was not turned on during my visit. A handwritten white board mounted near the counter is updated regularly to inform customers about the day’s specials.
When we arrived, several tables were occupied with customers finishing their late Saturday afternoon lunches. Xiomara, who was busily working when we entered, promptly greeted and seated us and brought us menus. She then brought out a basket with a loaf of freshly-baked bread, butter, and dipping sauce, which we later learned is called Rocotto. This sauce is a specialty of El Chalan and is made using wax peppers, green peppers, and the traditional Peruvian yellow Aji pepper, so it is quite spicy, but very delicious. We overheard almost every other diner ask Xiomara about this excellent sauce. It is not only used for dipping, but can be drizzled over one’s food to enhance the flavor and spiciness.
My guest and I ordered the traditional Peruvian drinks, fresh Maracuya, (passion fruit juice); and Chicha Morada, (purple corn punch), which were served over ice and were not overly sweet. We asked Xiomara for recommendations from the Peruvian menu selections before ordering our entrees. (Being Italian, I confess that I was tempted to try an Italian entrée, but decided to be more adventurous and instead try a Peruvian selection.) Xiomara informed us that the Lomo Saltado is by far their most popular entrée, adding that customers tell her it is the best in the entire Bay Area! Lomo Saltado is sautéed sirloin strips, garlic, red onions, tomatoes, and herbs mixed with French fries and served with steamed rice. Other favorites cited by Xiomara were the Chupe de Camarones (Peru’s own shrimp chowder); Saltado de Mariscos (sautéed shrimp and seafood mixed with fries and served over rice); and the Seco de Cordero con Arroz y Frijoles (lamb stew in cilantro sauce, peas served with Peruvian beans, steamed rice, and marinated onions.)
My guest ordered the Lomo Saltado, and I opted for a chicken entree that was not one of the stated “favorites”—Aji de Gallina. This entrée is shredded chicken served in a mild “aji amarillo” walnut gravy, served with halved potatoes, boiled egg, and steamed rice. We also requested to try the Chupe de Camarones, and Xiomara gladly brought us two small bowls before our entrees were served. It is easy to understand why this soup is a customer favorite! The soup is a cream-based broth mixed with white rice, peas, potato, onion, corn, egg, and feta cheese.Each of our bowls also boasted four large, succulent shrimp which tasted wonderful from being submerged in the yummy broth.
The Lomo Saltado arrived first, a large mound of steak strips, French fries, and all the other ingredients cooked together and served with a generous portion of white rice. The seasoning on the steak was excellent, and the meal was truly a hit with my guest. The Aji de Gallina arrived covered with the promised aji amarillo walnut gravy atop the shredded chicken—almost like a stew–and the white rice and boiled potatoes were on the outside of the gravy mixture. The chunks of chicken were tender and the sauce was flavorful and surprisingly not spicy. Although I enjoyed my meal, I found the gravy to be a bit heavy, so I think I would order an entrée sans sauce the next time I dine at El Chalan.
We saved room for sweet indulgences, since we had never before tried Peruvian desserts. The Helado De Lucuma (Peruvian Ice Cream), Alfajores (Peruvian Cookies with Caramel Filling), and Picarones (crunchy home-made squash fritters served with Peruvian caramel dipping sauce) all sounded quite intriguing. Being a cookie fan, I opted for the Alfajores, and my guest asked to try the Picarones. Xiomara obligingly agreed to bring us some of each dessert to sample. My guest and I fell instantly in love with the Alfajores as soon as we bit into them! Topped with powdered sugar and stuffed with generous amounts of caramel filling, the cookies were flaky, sweet, and melt-in-your-mouth delicious—the kind of cookie that makes your mouth water just by thinking of eating one! Xiomara informed us that some days, they sell over ten dozen cookies in one day! The Picarones were reminiscent of home-fried doughnuts like my grandma used to make. They were crunchy and not greasy, and were served in a dish with the caramel “dipping sauce”. While these were yummy, the Alfajores won out as our favorite dessert.
El Chalan’s “Specialty of the House” is their “Pollo a la Brasa”, Peruvian style Rotisserie Chicken, served with salad and French Fries. Whole rotisserie chickens are restricted to take-out only, but diners can order a quarter or a half chicken as an entrée. I observed the half chicken dinner served to a nearby diner, and made a mental note to try this on one of my next visits to El Chalan. All menu items can be ordered for take-out, and El Chalan does a robust “to go” business. Large take-out quantities may be purchased with minimal advanced notice for large parties or special events. Desserts are also available for take-out in larger quantities; for example a Whole Flan or a Tiramisu Tray can be purchased with one day advance notice. Alfajores are usually always available by the dozen for $15.00; however, orders of 100 mini cookies can be pre-ordered for $65. Alfajores are baked on-site at El Chalan, and additional quantities are regularly delivered for sale to some local Latin Markets. Aquiles and Xiomara hope to expand this component of their business in the near future.
Aquiles and Xiomara run El Chalan mostly by themselves, assisted during busier periods by only a few employees and/or family members, including their young daughter, Alexandra. Xiomara, who emigrated from Honduras in 1991, was the lone waitress during our visit on Saturday afternoon/early evening, serving numerous tables, preparing take-out orders, answering the phone, and bussing tables. Over the past thirteen years, El Chalan has amassed a large following of loyal customers from all over the Bay Area, but Aquiles and Xiomara always welcome the opportunity to serve new customers. If you’re looking for an authentic, delicious Peruvian or Italian meal, served in generous quantities for a reasonable price (average $11 – $14), you owe it to yourself to try El Chalan. (And don’t forget to save room for the Alfarones!)
3748 San Pablo Dam Road in El Sobrante | (510) 222-0607 |
Hours: Wednesday through Saturday 11:30 – 9:00; Sunday 10:00 – 8:00