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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Chifa: Peruvian-Chinese from José Garces

Can I just say that the world needs more scallion pancakes? This much-abused Chinese snack is often served as stiff and dry as cardboard or as soggy and greasy as a bag of old french fries. But properly-made, these savory treats can be a symphony of contrasting textures and flavors. José Garces' new restaurant Chifa not only makes these pancakes well, they even bring some bling to the bing, dressing them with cauliflower, cilantro and a drizzle of salty oyster sauce. The taste and texture reminded us so much of a really good latke that we couldn't help wondering if there might be potato mixed-in with the typical wheat-flour dough. But that's by no means a complaint... Our only quibble with them pertains to the restaurant as a whole: this order of five tiny pancakes, each about 2 inches in diameter, cost $8, at least double the cost for a similar item at a typical Chinese restaurant.

Of course Chifa is aiming for something more sophisticated than the average Chinese dive, serving refined interpretations of Peruvian Chinese dishes in elegant surroundings. Of course the elevated quality of ingredients, service and setting count for something, so it's not unexpected that prices will be higher. But as with most modern takes on traditional cuisines, one often wonders if the extra cost is worth it.

The answer for many customers seems to be that it is, as the ever-expanding José Garces empire (Amada, Tinto, Mercat a la Planxa, Distrito) is based on this formula, this refinement and miniaturization of regional foods has become the Garces signature. This small-plates concept is perfectly natural at Amada and Tinto: Spanish Tapas is probably the most direct inspiration for that entire dining trend. Buffing-up of this rustic tradition draws some criticism from traditionalists who insist that tapas are meant to be cheap and informal, casual snacks to be eaten with a glass of inexpensive wine or Sherry. Regardless of those critiques, Garces has been very successful in elevating these dishes to something more refined, and presenting them in a more upscale context, as witnessed by both the critical acclaim and popular success of his restaurants.

It may be too early to say whether this approach translates well to all cuisines. The food at Distrito is delicious, but I find the whole idea of Mexican small-plates to be disorienting. And that's my initial reaction to Chifa as well. The food we tried was all very good, some of it was excellent, but at first sampling, the portions and pricing feel somewhat in conflict with the nature of the cuisine.

Philadelphia doesn't have a lot of Peruvian restaurants, in fact, since El Sol de Peru in Upper Darby closed a couple of years ago, I can only think on one: El Balconcito, up in the NorthEast. Aside from the beef-and-frenchfry stir-fry called "Lomo Saltado" neither of those places featured the Chinese food served in Peru, a specific cuisine reflecting the surprisingly large ethnically Chinese population of the country. So this is a new fusion to me, and I can't make any comment about how closely Chifa's cooking resembles what one would find in Peru.

The food I've been served in Peruvian restaurants, or Chinese places for that matter, has generally arrived in generous portions. El Balconcito's ceviche platters are almost comically large, so the fan of five thin slices of fish in Chifa's serving of ceviche, or the five tiny silver-dollar scallion pancakes felt somehow disconnected from their origins. That's not inherently a failure of the concept, patrons may be perfectly happy to survey this cuisine in small bites. Although we found most of those bites to be very tasty, we did find ourselves wondering if they were sufficiently more tasty than the traditional versions of these dishes to justify the expense.

Before we'd even ordered anything, the bread made a positive impression. The light, puffy, cheesey rolls were addictive on their own, completely irresistable spread with the fruity butter that accompanied. The basic pisco sour was perfectly acceptable, if not the most vibrant example of this signature cocktail.

Hiramasa Ceviche, beautifully presented, allowed the high quality of the fish to shine through, the citrus accenting, rather than dominating the dish. While I'm not entirely sure how we were supposed to experience all the flavors, a quick dip of the fish in the marinade seemed to do the trick. Trolling the bowl with a fork yielded some nuggets of charred pineapple, which tasted great alongside the fish. Corn nuts served with the ceviche were an appropriate, and tasty accompaniment. I think this is the first time I've noticed a Philadelphia menu credit the creator of the serving piece, but it was indeed lovely.

An order of Anticuchos consisted of a skewer of (left to right) Adobo Pork Belly, Cilantro Chicken, and Ginger Shrimp. Although the pork and chicken portions are pretty tiny, the cubes of meat were less than an inch on a side, they were intensely flavorful. The pork belly in particular was a favorite, but the four tiny cubes disappeared too quickly. I'm told the shrimp were tasty as well. The garlicky chimichurri sauce was great on everything, but the peanut sauce and sweet chili sauce were each underwhelming. I enjoyed this dish, but at $13, I found myself wanting a bit more.

Barbecue ribs were very good, and we quickly got over the disorienting lack of any bones in most of them. They had a very nice smoky undertone, with a sweet-sticky sauce, studded with crunchy soy nuts. I don't think they displace the Wu Xi Ribs at Four Rivers as my current favorites, but they come close.

One of the larger dishes, listed under "Specialties" was the Chifa Chicken. It looks a bit like the traditional Peruvian Pollo a la Brasa, with its burnished skin, and juicy meat, but it's not exactly that. Our food runner described it as their take on Peking Duck, and indeed the crispy skin, especially daubed with the accompanying homemade hoisin sauce, evoked that dish. But then it was also sitting in a soy consommé, which gave another dimension, and a dip into the firey homemade sriracha sauce took the flavors somewhere else entirely. Props to the kitchen for the gutsy move of serving an assertively hot chili sauce, surely too spicy for many diners' palates. I thought it was delicious. The chicken itself tasted very good, and the crispy skin added wonderful flavor along with the crunch. But I wasn't completely happy with the texture - it was almost unnaturally juicy, surely due to brining, to the point of seeming a little rubbery.

The restaurant itself is lovely, although the back area is more inviting than the front. That section features a long communal table, a large round table in the corner, and several booths along each wall. I'm sure it would be a fun setting for a group of friends, and the style of food conforms well to that vibe as well.

I liked what I ate enough to want to go back and try more, but I'm still not settled on the greater question of whether this kind of food benefits from this stylized treatment. What we had was good, but are these versions more enjoyable than those at a Chinese restaurant or a Peruvian one? Does the setting and service add enough to draw me back here rather than going to Chinatown or to drive up to a Peruvian place in the Northeast? I'll have to try more of the menu to decide for myself, and I suspect that there's no absolute correct answer, each person will value each element differently. Four small-plates, one larger one (the Chifa Chicken,) a beer and a Pisco Sour added up to $85 before tip, which will go a lot further at most Chinese restaurants, and certainly at El Balconcito. Chifa's reinterpretations and presentations add value, but how much? You may have to decide for yourself.

707 Chestnut Street


  1. Anonymous5:36 PM

    I totally agree about the cost, too little for too much money. As you noted, real Peruvian ceviche isn't served in a cocktail glass in portions that would be stingy at even the most high-end sushi bar. It is a meal, a full lunch served with piece of boiled corn and sweet potato.

    That said, the food at Chifa is excellent and the preparation is nearly flawless. I've spent a lot of time in Peru, as I have family there. So, I am fairly familiar with the flavors that Garces is referencing.

    The thing to understand is the degree to which Chinese immigrant cooking has influence mainstream Peruvian food, and the degree that Peruvian ingredients have changed the food served in Peruvian Chinese restaurants. Garces has done an admirable job of capturing the essence of that culinary exchange, while still appealing to western sensibilities.

    Also, Chifa makes the most, and maybe only, authentic Pisco Sour in the city, nearly rivaling the excellence of Brooklyn's Coco Roco.

  2. Anonymous9:17 AM

    Let me start by saying that I was born in Lima Peru, I go back every year and I have eaten at the finest Chifa's in Peru among them (Chifa Titi, Ichi-Ban, O-Mei, Fu Sen, Oriental La wok and Ming Yin). Furthermore I have been lucky to have eaten at Peruvian spots like the world famous Astrid y Gaston, Granja Azul (best chicken in the world!), Costa Verde & Costanera 700 among others.

    As far as Jose Garces Chifa I have eaten there 4 times and i think i have now eaten the entire menu
    The Hiramasa ceviche comment was almost comical. You eat it with a spoon and a fork ( or chopsticks)!! Just like in Peru. The leftover juice is called Leche De Tigre. Each course of food at Chifa is set with a spoon and chopsticks.
    FYI The Anticucho is now larger than the photo
    Jose happened to be there when i went and I stopped him as he walked by. Such a nice guy so friendly and passionate about cooking.
    He said the chicken had been tweaked in the past days a bit higher temperature to eliminate the so called "rubbery texture"
    he said the organic chicken from Canada went through a 6 step process by the time it hits the table. It is brined in star anise, orange, ginger and cilantro, then blanched,dried,lacquered in sugar and vinegar, hung for 24 hours and then roasted.
    WOW thats a lot of work!! For $22 this is a bargain.

    I found out from Jose that a lot of the dishes like the anticuchos, pork belly buns, wings, ribs and even the chaufa rice have some serious kitchen preperation time which last at times days. There is a lot going on with small details of dishes. Sous vide cooking (many meat dishes go through this) is slow, lengthy and a precise craft.

    Im sure El Bancocito does not use fresh Corvina sea bass. Most casual spots substitute, whiting or tilapia which does not have the firmness of Corvina

    I was with a group of ten people ( maybe a better way to try the flavors than with just two people) The chicken was a huge hit but everyone had a different top 5 list of dishes. We did the Chefs tasting that night. For $65 a head including dessert it was a great deal. 11 dishes perfectly portioned and easier to share if you don't like the small plate sharing thing. Small plates are great because instead of two tastes (appetizer, entree) you can have 6 times that. As one of my friends said. Im drunk with flavors of food
    Finally There are over 4000 Chifa's in Peru, most of they are just ok to good. Only a dozen I estimate are really incredible. I mentioned 6 earlier. Jose Garces agreed and said so at his January Free Library speaking event
    So is Chifa philly better than Chifa's in Peru?? That isn't even an accurate question because Chifa philly is an interpretation of Peruvian and OTHER latin inspired dishes along with Jose's interpretaion of Chifa food. Chifa restaurants in Peru only serve chinese food with Peruvian ingredients (peppers, sauces,potatoes etc) , they dont serve Peruvian dishes like ceviche, anticuchos, chupe, papas a la huancaina and causa
    That being said, Jose's chinese inspired part of the menu is just as good and at times better than the top 12 Chifa's in Peru. In my humble opinion
    Finally Americans can't even handle 100% authentic Preuvian dishes, guinea pig and beef heart anticuchos are traditional in Peru. Can you imagine the uproar if that was on the menu in Philly. So Jose had to make some modifications to those "western sensibilities" (insensibilities) ???

  3. Thanks for that insight. I'm especially happy to hear that they have tweaked the chicken prep - I did like the flavors a lot, but the texture bugged me.

    I agree that one can't really do a direct comparison between this Chifa and chifas in Peru, or between this place and El Balconcito, or Chinatown restaurants, they're all doing different things.

    The reason I brought up the contrast is that I was left wondering about the value-added at this particular restaurant. Yes, things were done more elegantly and more carefully, but did that translate to a more delicious dish, a better experience? In some cases, yes. In other cases, I wasn't so sure. I'm still not.

    In any case, thanks again for the report, it does make me want to check out more of the menu.

  4. You offer some very good info about Peru, and enough specific details about back of the house prep to make my insider RADAR go up, especially when posted by "anonymous" but let's assume you are just an ardent diner, and take it at face value.

    In any case, thanks for the tip on eating the ceviche - I'm not sure why you would say it's comical, I don't think it is clear at all what one is supposed to do with this dish, whether the fish is supposed to be dipped in the liquid, or mixed down in it, or what one is supposed to do with the leftover liquid. Maybe a server should explain it.

    We did in fact fish around for more charred pineapple and even ate some of the liquid with the spoon, but in this particular preparation, I didn't find the "Leche De Tigre" to be all that exciting on its own, so I stopped. I did like the fish quite a lot.

    I have no doubt that places like El Balconcito use a lower-quality fish, but there you get a huge plate, way too much for even 4 people, for less money than the tiny serving at Chifa. I'm not saying that price or quality or quantity are more important, but all of them are worth considering.

    I'm curious, what would the reaction be in Peru if the ceviche was served as 5 thin slices of fish? I haven't had the pleasure of traveling there, but I've seen many depictions of the food, and the ceviche servings always seem a bit more bountiful.

    Good to know that the anticuchos are bigger now. They were delicious, but disappeared pretty fast. And I don't know, they might want to try serving heart anticuchos, I had them at El Sol de Peru before they closed, and they were quite tasty!

  5. You've got some great photos there...JC, what kind of camera do you use?

  6. Thanks! With the acceleration of camera technology my model's somewhat out-of-date, despite not being all that old! It's a Nikon D50, and I'm using an 18-35mm VR lens. The Vibration-Reduction on the lens seems to be helping in these dim situations. That and shooting in RAW, allowing for some significant tweaking after the fact.