Sunday, September 18, 2011

Aji Picante (Squirrel Hill)

Update: Aji Picante is closed.

Do you know Señorita Cibulka?  She's a high school Spanish teacher in West Mifflin who came up with the fascinating idea of having her students explore authentic Mexican/Latino restaurants in the Pittsburgh area for extra credit in her class.  (She is even planning a trip to Spain for interested students!)  She recently started her blog Señorita Cibulka Savors to document her own experiences at various authentic Mexican/Latino restaurants for her students and for anyone who is interested.  I have a soft spot for educators, particularly innovative ones who think outside the box and who find new ways to engage students, so I have been following Señorita Cibulka's blog with interest and to learn more about authentic Mexican/Latino food myself, which I'll admit to knowing little about.

Señorita Cibulka and I had also exchanged a few conversations over Twitter, and it was through one of these conversations that we decided to meet up for dinner at the new Aji Picante that had just opened up in Squirrel Hill in the old Panera space across from Silk Elephant and next to what is now Razzy Fresh.  Like La Feria in Shadyside, Aji Picante serves Peruvian cuisine and is owned by Pittsburgh staple Pamela's Diner.  Although I have yet to try La Feria, I had heard great things about it, so I had pretty high expectations for Aji Picante.  Besides, if their Peruvian food is half as good as Pamela's hot cakes, then this would promise to be a great meal!

But first things first:  What does "Aji Picante" mean?  According to our Spanish teacher here, it means something to the effect of "spicy chili."  Good to know.

On to the menu.  Most of the items looked intriguing, but we tried to look for the most authentic dish possible, and this is where I looked to Señorita Cibulka for guidance.  To start, her and I shared the Torrejas de Choclo, or "crispy corn fritters seasoned with aji amarillo and cilantro."  As Señorita Cibulka pointed out in her blog, aji amarillo is a Peruvian yellow chili pepper.  Three different sauces came with the corn fritters: mint, guacamole, and hot red pepper.  We were both pretty happy with the corn fritters which were full of flavor, and the sauces were good.  We both agreed that the mint was a little less flavorful than we preferred, but the other two were tasty.  My personal favorite was the hot pepper sauce.

Torrejas de Choclo at Aji Picante
Torrejas de Choclo ($7)

The entree was a tough choice.  I was really curious about the purple potato ravioli, but that didn't sound very Peruvian to me, so I went with the more authentic Chupe (minus the poached egg).  Señorita Cibulka did the same (though with the poached egg).  The chupe is basically a stew with rice, veggies, and an assortment of shrimp, mussels, clams, and calamari, "in a flavourful tarragon infused broth."  Bonus points for including the "u" in "flavourful." ;)  I'm pretty sure this was the first chupe I've ever had, and I gotta say, it has set the bar really high for future chupes.  Although the picture makes the soup look somewhat creamy, it is actually a pretty light broth.  Every bite of this was full of rich deliciousness.  They weren't kidding about it being flavourful with a "u"!  I had asked Señorita Cibulka if she thought the poached egg added much to the chupe, and she didn't think so, so I guess I didn't miss out.  Finally, the serving was massive, and both of us had to take about half of our chupe home.

Chupe at Aji Picante
Chupe ($22)

We were, not surprisingly, very full by the time we gave up on our entree.  But when the waitress came by to see if we wanted desserts, we decided to ask if we could see the menu.  As soon as we said it though, I knew we were in trouble.  And we were.  The menu was too tempting.  After several moments of indecision, we decided to share a Mazzamorra Morada, which Señorita Cibulka aptly described as being like "jello Sangria."  No, there is no wine in this dessert, but it is a mesh of tarty fruity goodness in a jello form made with purple corn, apples, pineapples, dried cranberries, and apricots, and topped with cinnamon and cloves.  It was very refreshing and didn't feel heavy at all.  And after all, it's made with fruit, so it's good for you, right? ;)

Mazzamorra Morada at Aji Picante
Mazzamorra Morada ($5)

The food was fabulous.  The atmosphere and service were also very pleasant.  In fact, our waitress was very attentive and gave us solid recommendations.  Needless to say, both Señorita Cibulka and I enjoyed our Aji Picante experience a lot.  (See her blog post for more of her thoughts on our meal.)  Great food, great company...what more can you ask for?

Restaurant info:
Aji Picante
1711 Murray Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15217
(412) 422-0220
On the web:
On Facebook:
Bonus: BYOB

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