The waitress tilts her head with a blind smile and raised eyebrows without saying anything. When I ask her for the menu her resignation switches to surprise and she walks off as quietly as she came—she still hasn’t uttered a single word.
This isn’t entirely uncommon around lunchtime at this type of Peruvian dive. I am the only person in the room that hasn’t ordered a lunch special that includes juice, a hearty bowl of soup and a heavy main dish that sends you straight into siesta mood. Everyone in the room orders with the same enthusiasm as the waitress barely taking their eyes from the news cycle looping on the oversized television above the entryway.
She returns with a thin laminated menu with La Ale written in bold yellow lettering. Underneath is their catchphrase, “unos sandwiches de película”, printed over the outline of an old film canister. I expect to find a list of movie themed names but the ‘de película’ reference speaks to the self-proclaimed awesomeness of their sandwiches.
The logic is lost on me but it makes sense considering that the restaurant is an amalgamation of random aesthetics. The entrance is decorated with “LA ALE” in capital letters made from a newspaper print pattern. The ‘abierto’ sign is almost always reads ‘cerrado’. No single piece of furniture matches the other; old sewing machines are used as table bases with different tops and wicker, rustic country white and blocky wood chairs. Bright green bamboo wall paper wraps around the room with large photographs of typical Peruvian ingredients nailed over them—if you aren’t sure what vegetable the photo depicts it’s written in bubbly red lettering for you.
Most of the Peruvian restaurants that extend from Abasto up to Once offer encyclopedic menus with homey dishes braised in richly layered sauces or spit-roasted chicken that cooks low and fills the dining room with the smell of crispy chicken skin. Here, the focus is on less labor intensive plates that are quickly grilled or fried. There are other dishes—I would like to try the empanadas stuffed with aji de gallina, spicy chopped beef or carne con porotos but they are always out (or just too lazy to make them regularly). “Another day,” I’m always assured. I hear the same story about the pork tamales and the ocopa.
I came here to eat sandwiches, though. Despite the poor flash photography used to display the menu on the front window, walk inside. I skip the milanesas and hamburgers that look more at home in a kiosco display case and don’t have any time for the ‘international’ Montecristo or Club Sandwich.
The chicharron de cerdo is always a safe choice. Slabs of tenderized pork are pan-fried before being haphazardly layered between thick slices of airy sweet potato and a small mountain of onion and tomato cubes softened with lemon juice. The pork is blackened just right—it’s has that crispy ‘carnitas’ texture with a slight outer char without sacrificing a tender bite. The onions crunch loudly and let out a welcome acidity. Salsas, which change each day, are often prepared with mouth-shattering rocoto that stings the tip of the tongue. The chicken sandwich is reminiscent of the Colombian reina pepiada. Meat is shredded thin and tossed in a homemade mayo sauce. Peruvian mayonnaise tends to be thin with a smooth cream flavor rather than the goopy standard version. It plays nicely with the generous slices of avocado—it also includes slices of hard-boiled egg but I’m not about the huevo duro life.
I especially like the lomo saltado. Beef tenderloin is sliced into long strips and sautéed with onion, chunky tomato and ‘secret sauce’ before being tossed over a thin slice of bread that is barely visible under the generous contents. The sandwich isn’t for the tender hearted—it’s a unabashed mess. The juices will run down your fingers and paint your face before it all falls apart under the weight of the sauce. It’s worth it. The flavors cling to each mouthful without overwhelming the senses—notes of cumin, cilantro, beef broth, vinegar and mild peppers take turns dancing. I like to slather the sandwich with a spoonful of mayonnaise and hot sauce to add a buttery bite to the savory beef.
To accompany, yuca root is freshly fried and extra crispy. A variety of juices, like mango and passion fruit, are thick and pure tasting—never watered down or packed with extra sugar.
I’m still holding out for the roasted turkey sandwich—which supposedly is roasted, sliced and braised in its own fat and juices. “Another day,” they keep telling me. For now, I’m happy with the saltado.
Boulogne Sur Mer 459, Abasto