It all started with Chuyos’ takeout pollo a la brasa roasted Peruvian style, its skin roasted with a dusky rub of cumin and paprika and garlic and lime, its flesh so juicy and succulent it seemed like a minor miracle.
I couldn’t get over that fabulous bird — a Sunday special — or the alluring chicha morada beverage, made from deep-purple corn and wafting scents of clove and pineapple juice, that I ordered to go with it.
Suddenly I was looking for excuses to set out along the Gulf Freeway for League City, where this mom-and-pop Peruvian spot has opened, somewhat improbably, in a strip mall on the Kemah end of the main drag.
I’d tell myself it was about getting in a public session of ice skating or scoping out the latest shoe arrivals at the Baybrook DSW. But of course it was really food that was calling me southeasterly, beyond my usual haunts.
I dreamed about Chuyo’s cool, sweating pitchers of chicha morada on hot days and fantasized about the magnificent baked empanadas stuffed with gound beef, mined with a tapestry of olives and raisins and onions, tinged by chile heat. I found myself imagining the unexpected snowfall of powdered sugar on that savory hand pie, lightly sweet against salt and hot, the pastry as buttery as a really fine pie crust.
Chuyos, which is named for the colorful knitted earflapped caps worn in the Peruvian highlands, styles itself a “Peruvian Fusion Deli.” Don’t fear that fusion label. There’s no labored melding of disparate cuisines going on here, just a couple of Houston-friendly crowd pleasers like quesadillas and burgers tucked into a brief menu of sandwiches and Peruvian favorites.
People who are interested in Peruvian food and more cautious eaters alike can dine happily here. There are some notable wobbles, and I wish the owners were more serious about some of their ingredients. (Bland farmed tilapia for that gorgeous ceviche plate? Say it ain’t so, especially with the docks of Kemah and Seabrook just a hop away.) But for the most part, the food is beautifully seasoned and engagingly homey — and the price is refreshingly right.
Fans of the various Peruvian odes to the native potato will be delighted with the papas huancaina here, the potatoes cloaked in a golden sauce with the texture of the fluffiest homemade mayonnaise and lit up by the distinctive warmth of aji, one of the country’s indigenous chile peppers. One order is of shareable size, perfect for summer and sunny against one of the restaurant’s deep blue plates. It’s sensational stuff.
And what connoisseur of comfort food could resist the mighty papa rellena here, a veritable football of mashed potato fried to an outer crisp and stuffed with a trove of empanada-style ground-beef filling, the tang of olive and sweet-tart pop of raisin carrying the flavors along? With a tangle of magenta pickled onion and a creamy, insidiously chile-zapped green sauce, this outrageous object is a meal in itself.
So, in its way, is the causa: a cool torte of stacked mashed-potato layers filled with chicken salad and frosted with house-made mayonnaise that has been sharpened with aji amarillo, one of the best-known Peruvian chiles. It’s a controlled warmth just suited to this summery dish, which tastes like it was made for a particularly exotic picnic — right down to the cheerful slice of hard-boiled egg on top.
If you suspect that this house-made mayonnaise might make the salad sandwiches here a good bet, you’d be right: both the chicken salad and the egg salad (the latter available in a triple-decker sandwich with avocado and Roma tomatoes) are very good, especially with Chuyos’ nutty-tasting wholegrain bread, which is also made in-house.
Add a tall tumbler of chicha morada — which I have learned to drink at cool room temperature, sans ice, so as not to dilute its evocative flavors and aromas — and you’ve got a lunch as well-mannered as that of any tearoom, and a lot more interesting.
As the choice of vivid china suggests here, it’s the use of color that make Chuyos so fresh and pretty in its unassuming way, with walls of lemon and peach, and woven folkloric table runners of many hues. Even the fruit sectioned and waiting in the deli case catches the eye: watermelon slices, bright cubes of papaya, crimson strawberries, yellow pineapple, ready to be doled out with sandwiches or soup or a la carte in a fruit cup.
A floor fan whirrs away to augment the air conditioning, but ceiling fans churn the air in the high-ceiling space to a comfortable breeziness, and I found myself grateful that I didn’t end up wishing I had brought along a sweater and socks. There is something to be said for air conditioning that is less than state-of-the-art.
Just as I make allowances for the air conditioning, I find myself tolerant of the missteps here, because they occur in the context of likable and promising food.
I can almost forgive the fleet of overcooked, woody shrimp in the shrimp soup, a frequent special, because the tomatoey bisque is so damn delicious, bobbing with bits of carrot and peas and molten queso fresco. Using fewer and better shrimp, and not allowing them to cook to death, would put this soup over the top.
Similarly, cooking the the lomo saltado of beef tips to order, instead of using dried-out pieces of meat cooked too long beforehand, would have made this dish a winner. The wok-tossed sauce, a combo of soy-and-vinegar marinade with sweet onion and that diagnostic current of chile heat, was as good as any I’ve had, maybe better.
But it was 7 p.m., with the end of dinner service approaching, and the chef sat out in the dining room at a table, resting and watching Spanish-language television. Had he had the energy to stir-fry the dish to order (a cooking process that testifies to the significant Chinese influence on Peruvian cuisine), it would have been swell, right down to the last French fry stowed in with the flaps of beef, onion and tomato.
A special of pork adobo I tried had a similar problem: nice tang in the ruddy sauce, but pork chunks dry and forbidding. As to the aji de gallina, a pulled-chicken stewlike affair said to be much-loved in Peru, it struck me as being as bland and uninteresting as every other version I’ve ever sampled. Maybe there’s a good aji di gallina out there somewhere, but I’m beginning to wonder.
Desserts are quite lovely here, from a rich, curdy flan to a seriously dark chocolate cake doused with house-made ganache. There’s even a homestyle version of pionono, a yellow cake roll coiled around deep-bronze dulce de leche.
I found myself thinking the South Shore neighbors are lucky to have this oddball little place in their neighborhood. Already the Peruvian expats have found it, and if you go for a late lunch on the weekends, you may see whole families chowing down with a big 2-liter bottle of Inca Kola right in the middle of the table.
It looks more like West Houston than League City, but that’s the way things are going in this increasingly diversified metropolitan region that we call home.
2500 Marina Bay Dr.
Ω a good restaurant that we recommend.
ΩΩ very good; one of the best restaurants of its kind.
ΩΩΩ excellent; one of the best restaurants in the city.
ΩΩΩΩ superlative; can hold its own on a national stage.