When Peruvian superchef Gastón Acurio touched down in Chicago nearly two years ago he ushered in a new kind of environment for exploring his country's food. Prior to that if you wanted to enjoy modern Peruvian cuisine's unique alloy of Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, African, and indigenous influences, you went to one of a half dozen or so mom-and-pop places out in the neighborhoods, some of which excel at a number of things, but few of which consistently deliver on the great scope of what Peru, from mountain to sea, is capable of producing.
Then again, while Tanta is nice—wonderful, really—it's in River North, which increasingly demands Buddha-like levels of imperturbability to endure. If Acurio really is the world ambassador for Peruvian food he might have done better to open a restaurant in a real neighborhood. Enter Via Lima, a midscale North Center spot from Peruvian-born novice restaurateur Eni Cadena, who scuttled plans to open a gift shop to instead bring ceviche, causitas, and beef heart anticuchos to a neighborhood overcrowded with middling sports bars and more in need of a dose of rocoto-pepper-spiked novelty than most.
Cadena and her chef, Andrew Sawyer, a transplant from the unlikely city of Minneapolis, seem to have adopted Tanta's broad approach, serving most of Peru's iconic dishes, starting with a cone of plaintain chips with aji amarillo sauce, the creamy, yellow-chile-based salsa that's just one of many vibrant, craveable condiments that appear across the menu.
Featured prominently is an array of sea creatures denatured in lime juice and chiles. These ceviches include a classic mixto—scallops, shrimp, and fish bathed in leche de tigre, a curative brew of lime, chiles, red onions, and fish stock—and sections of scallops served on the half shell with pico de gallo and supersize corn kernels. This ever-present starch—choclo—is a crunchy, tender counterpoint to the firm, acidic fish. A dark, nuttier roasted variety comes with the sashimi-style tiradito along with a blazing-hot rocoto chile salsa. The market fish available when I ordered it was a dark, meaty yellowtail jack with more than enough flavor to stand up to the bright, spicy marinade.
The vividly colored hors d'ouevre-like causitas are well represented too. Cylindrical sections of densely mashed potato, either yellow or purple, serve as vehicles for crab, shrimp, or chicken, garnished with olive and tomato and squirts of thick, creamy chile sauces. These bites appear delicate, but they're every bit as substantial as the imposing skewers of beef heart, big chunks of the steaklike meat served with a trio of sauces including a thick peanut-based paste and another spiked with the black mint huacatay. It's an impressive display of muscle for $13.
The Chinese influence is fairly inescapable at Via Lima. Soy sauce is used as a marinade for the glassine-skinned roast chicken, served with thick-cut fries, and the tenderloin lomo saltado is tossed about with it in the wok as well. But no dish owes more to the Chinese than the chaufa aeropuerto, pork belly and shrimp fried rice; soy and spicy garlic sauce work in tandem as the backdrop to a greasy-good plateful, and crunchy rice noodles provide an ideal contrast.
There are a few less familiar dishes on Sawyer's menu. A shrimp and vegetable salad features choclo, favas, olives, and a fresh farmer cheese that almost places the dish in Greece. A fluffy corn souffle—almost a pudding—is so likable its duck confit topping seems extraneous. And a dish from the southern part of country in which a pair of roasted rocoto peppers—like juicy red tomatoes in texture and hot as lava rocks—are stuffed with ground beef and raisins, smothered in Havarti cheese, and perched atop a bed of charred potato gratin, is hidden in the middle of the menu, but deserves top billing.
Desserts are equally uncommon, including a coconut and cinnamon granita, a nutty chocolate torte with raisins and almonds—a sort of redemptive version of the Chunky bar—and a heavy rice pudding stained with purple corn. A pisco-based cocktail list leads into a concise wine list dominated by South American labels, including a pair of interesting yet affordable Peruvian bottles versatile enough to stand up to anything on the menu.
Via Lima doesn't have the star power of Tanta, nor is it situated in a particularly visible location. It's not even significantly less expensive. But for a restaurateur's rookie effort, Via Lima sells Peruvian food just as well. v