September 14, 2009 | BITE: My Journal

Is Peru Hot or Not: Pio Pio

I could be eating this “cebiche” on its sweet potato “bedding” in Peru. Photo: Steven Richter

I could be eating this “cebiche” on its sweet potato “bedding” in Peru. Photo: Steven Richter

        I came back from Peru with flavors of chef hi-jinks in Lima and Cuzco dancing in my memory, finding portents here at home that gave me courage to predict last week that Peruvian might be our next hot cuisine.  I habitually shy from guessing what’s next because, as I wrote, I never predicted anything, not tall food, not small plates. Once I dared announce that steak was dead just before Morton’s and Ruth’s Chris invaded town, long before Peter Luger spawnlits. How prophetic was that?

 
 Pio Pio’s Tenth Avenue sprout is ambitious with a great stretch of bar. Photo: Steven Richter

        Alas, my dinner at the good-looking and sweet-talking new Pio Pio on Tenth Avenue, their eighth location, makes me think I should retract my forecast, even though New Yorkers in Rego Park, Jackson Heights, Mott Haven and Murray Hill clearly love their local Pio Pio. Fans are certainly pouring in tonight, a lot of them speaking Espanol, but many ordering the house’s signature marinated chicken in English.  “Buen Provecho!!!!” it says on the menu.  Bon appétit, sort of. The newest store is sprawling, with a handsome front, rough wood plank paneling, well-lit photographs at the long bar and peppy dance rhythms on “loud” (an obliging greeter gets the music lowered a bit at my request).

         Pio Pio could not be more Peruvian.  The bebidas de la casa are all made from Peru’s proud spirit, Pisco. My Pisco sour takes a longish time to arrive.  It is very serious, no fusion silliness, alcoholic and delicious. In Peru I couldn’t resist the shrimp chowder, chupe de camerones, and I don’t resist it here: thick with rice, Peruvian baby corn and “batted eggs,” it is delicious, except for the overcooked shrimp.

 
Avocado stuffed with shrimp, red onion and corn in an acidy lime salsa. Photo: Steven Richter

        But I am put off by the sharp blast of acid in most everything else - the shrimp stuffed avocado with red onions, tomato and scallions, the “cebiche mixto” (lime juice-marinated fish chunks, shrimp, octopus, calamari and scallops “served in sweet potato bedding”) - even the side salad served with the purple corn tamal wrapped around stringy, dry chicken.  Maybe Peruvian limes aren’t quite so one dimensional.  Authentic it is, and classically traditional.  I see empanadas and the yellow potato cake Peruvians love. But this is not the young chefs of Lima's upscale dazzle I hope finds its way to Manhattan. 

 
Tangy marinated chicken Pio is enough for two or three. Photo: Steven Richter

        I have read and heard raves for the house chicken, a whole bird for just $14, and it’s got great salty zing, but tonight, even the thigh is too dry. I suspect most New Yorkers like their chicken cooked juiceless. Otherwise, why would it be so hard to get a bird moist and perfectly cooked? As for the yucca fritas, I cannot say.  Our waiter has brought papas fritas. They are very good, addictive almost, tasting like real potato (not cardboard, as some do). And there’s a sensational pale green sauce with an afterkick to dip everything in.  (They should bottle it.)

         “These are not yucca,” I say to our waiter, a hard-working, highly motivated angel, wonderfully responsive.

         “Oh, you wanted juca,” he cries.
 
         It is my duty to break the news, since no one else had it seems.  “In America people say ‘yucca’ when we want ‘juca,’” I tell him.

         Go in good health, Pio Pio. New York already loves you. It shouldn’t matter much if I get it or not.

604 Tenth Avenue between 43rd and 44 Streets. 212 459 2929

***

Latino Merry-go-Round

 

Talia holds Barman Cervantes’ dramatic Pisco mojito. Photo: Steven Richter

        I really liked Yerba Buena on Avenue A.  It had Julian Medina, whose food I loved at Toloache, in the kitchen playing with rhythms of Argentina, Peru and Cuba, as well as Mexico. I quickly got high on a Mae West of a Pisco sour in a soup bowl-size goblet and was really happy with the grouper tacos, Malbec short ribs and a sensational mixed grill with chimichurri. We meant to return, but in that New York way of all flesh, we never did. It was so far away, costly by taxi, three changes on the subway.

 
Tiradito of flounder with sweet potato and Peruvian corn is wonderful. Photo: Steven Richter

        Now Medina had linked up with yet another set of partners at Yerba Buena Perry, fifteen minutes on our downtown express. I’m primed for the electricity of Avenue A, even though I don’t exactly remember what Yerba Beuna looked like. I just know it was hot, sexier than the somewhat bare bones Perry offshoot is tonight, missing Medina’s energy and the lively Alphabet City crew. We send back the Mezcal Maid because it tastes more like Mezcal Medicine and watery, too.  A dramatic Pisco Mojito in a layered rainbow is better. 

 
New in the Village and the bartender is finding his way. Photo: Steven Richter

        And here are the echoes of Peru that lured me into daring to make last week’s prediction: The flounder tiradito, decked out with aji amarullo (yellow pepper), sweet potato, red onion, cilantro and cancha corn, looks very a la mode Lima. Managing partner Christopher Gilman’s longtime stint at The Palm may have inspired rib eye ceviche but it wears crunches of Peruvian corn, a peppery rocoto sauce and sea urchin too, though I’d like a stronger hit of uni. Aji panca, another Peruvian chile, habanero salsa, pineapple and radish mingle in four little hamachi tacquitos.

         I was a fan of the picado in its paper cone across town and I love all those fatty and salty snacks again here - fried chorizo, crispy bacon squares, battered yucca and tostones (green plaintains) to dip into more rocoto sauce.  I’m also happy enough with Baja-style tilapia tacos and their chipotle-mango slaw topping.

 
Hamachi with pineapple, radish and chili in four taquitos. Photo: Steven Richter

        Given Gilman’s Palm heritage, I am tempted by the parillada for two – rib eye, New York strip and chorizo with bone marrow, blood sausage arepa and three sauces - at what seems a reasonable $55. I can’t find a parilla partner to join me tonight.  Our guests are drawn to roasted suckling pig -- a hill of pulled pork with cracklings, yucca puree and habanero tomato salsa - and grilled black cod with fennel in a yerba mate consommé.  I found the normally firm fish sadly soggy. And tamarind vinaigrette makes the blue corn meal crusted calamari unpleasantly sticky and sweet.

Tamarind vinegar makes the blue corn meal crusted calamari too sweet. Photo: Steven Richter

        Battering avocado for deep frying is brave, perhaps even foolhardy. I could vote either way. Red jalapeno fries on the YB Fries list are not the torrid jalapeno strips we expected but every day potatoes with barely detectable chili.

        Clearly this new seedling needs more time to grow into its heritage.

1 Perry Street on the corner of Greenwich Avenue. 212 820 0808

 ***

In Search of Great Soupy Buns

 

Nan Xiang Xiao Dumpling House is packed tonight. Photo: Steven Richter

        When the first drop of rain hit the VIP stand at the Mets game Thursday night after the on-field honoring of our Citymeals-on-Wheels volunteers, we fled like the city slickers that we are.  I had persuaded my friends to hit Flushing in search of the dumpling house our guru of all things Chinese, Eddie Schoenfeld, had recommended for the best soupy buns in town. “Better,” he promised, “than Joe’s Shanghai.”
 
         What can I say?  Map Quest works.  We abandon our designated driver to the vast and fully committed city parking lot across the street, leaping garbage heaps and puddles to invade Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao.  As our tour guide, I am dismayed.  All the long tables shoehorned into the tiny store front are taken. We are instructed to wait in the entryway. Behind us a crowd of hungry suitors quickly gathers, stretching out into the drizzle.  But we’re next. There’s room for four.  We just need another chair. An amiable young woman slips into the crowd to find one.

The soupy buns are a wonder of silken wrap and mingled flavors. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Through the glass-wrapped kitchen, we watch a man and a woman pinching dumplings non stop. Steamers stream out into nonexistent aisles.  While waiting for ours, we try the very ordinary pan fried pork dumplings and the primitive scallion cake, deliciously greasy and just $2.95 – if only anyone beside me were rash enough to eat it. Pan fried udon noodles with stray bits of pork are actually very good, firm and al dente.  Our companion’s determination to get something healthy pays off – a generous saucer of cucumber with garlic and sesame oil is fabulous.
 
         And the Shanghai soupy buns are all that Eddie promised. I ordered pork alone and pork with crab, $5.50 and $6.50 for six. In this photo they look a little blowsy because the wrappers are really thin, almost like silk jersey, and presentation is not what brings one to Flushing.  I show my friends how to pick up a bundle on the porcelain soup spoon without breaking the wrapper and losing all the juice.  No need to ask for vinegar. It’s there on the table with slivers of ginger to spoon on top. I make a small incision with my teeth and suck out the marvelous nectar.

        Is that ambrosia worth a trip from Manhattan?  If you’re obsessed with soupy buns or like to get in your car and have an adventure, definitely.  Otherwise, stop by on your way from the airport or coming in from Long Island. Bring beer and cash. You won’t need much. We dropped $45 to feed our foursome, including a generous tip.

38-12 Prince Street, Flushing 212 321 3838.
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