A sign on the front door written in speedy magic marker reads, “Kitchen Assistant Wanted. Peruvians Only.” I grab a seat by the door and the waitress slinks over, curling her head around and dropping it to her shoulder without saying a single word. She raises her eyebrows slightly and waits indifferently to hear which of the menu del día options I’ll settle on. “Could I see a menu?” I ask. “It’s written on the door,” she responds squarely. A young man waits patiently behind her before selling me a trio of socks.
My request breaks with protocol. The rest of the late lunch crowd at La Ale is slurping up the last of their soups that come as part of a daily rotating combo. The physical menus, of which I suspect there are just two copies, are seven pages worth of soups, comida criolla and chifa, saltados, and meat, chicken and pork plates. Most of them are just filling up space.
A Peruvian friend once told me that every single restaurant across Once and Abasto had just one specialty. Only those who truly get the subtleties of a great sudado or had eaten enough hangover-curing tacu tacu knew exactly which kitchen to go to. It’s an insider’s game and for the rest of us, we’re just passersby.
I start with the chifa side of the menu and inquire about the pork marinated in sillao and meusiI. The words mean as much to her as they do to me. What about fried chicken with curry and coconut milk? Curry, she squeaks back almost offended. Does she recommend the aji de gallina empanadas? Yes, but they stopped making those a year ago and never bothered to take the photo out of the window display.
As per usual at these sorts of Peruvian dives, La Ale makes decent sopas stuffed with long tangles of noodles and shredded meat. The aguadito de pollo is like any respectable grandmother’s chicken noodle soup—a light broth with tender shreds of chicken, slightly sweet carrot and, surprisingly, bits of lettuce and other crunchy greens. The sopa de trigo is far superior with its weighty cracked wheat that has been flavored by a moody beef broth.
The best mains tend to be on the comfort foods. Chancho con tamarindo is a satisfyingly sweet dish reminiscent of a gringo style sweet and sour pork dish. Generous chunks of pork come swimming underneath a crimson red gloss that is tossed around in a wok with wonderfully crunchy onions and bell peppers. They are best enjoyed when mixed together with arroz chaufa, which when consumed alone is quite bland, but quickly becomes addictive once the tangy tamarind clings on to each piece of rice.
The pollo broaster is generously coated and deep fried to order with your choice of white or dark meat. While I often prefer dark, there is something satisfying about the savageness of tearing tender meat off the breastbones. It sits atop a bed of french fries, that despite a heavy hand on the salt, are so crunchy you quickly forgive the pucker on the lips. Both should be drenched in hot sauce, a creamy fire red rocoto sauce.
La Ale’s specialty, of course, is the sandwich. All twelve options are taped on the window outside. Overexposed snaps of a Monte Cristo and a basic milanesa hide the real gems. The chicharron de cerdo is always a safe bet. An impossible construction of pan-fried pork, soft sweet potatoes and a haphazard mix of citrusy onion and tomato are piled high on a soft white bun. The pork is given a delightful outer char that hides tender flakes of meat. A chicken salad shares a strong resemblance to the reina pepiada, with a smooth mayonnaise punctuated by friendly slices of avocado.
I always end up with the lomo saltado. Bread feels like an afterthought; it is a complete mess of tenderloin sautéed with onion, chunky tomato and a soy sauce based marinade that is tossed on with such vigor that the bottom bun is completely camouflaged. Don’t bother asking for extra napkins and feel no shame in licking your fingers. To drink, licuados are sugar free and better than the best smoothie spot you’ll find north of Cordoba. Mango is an easy favorite but don’t underestimate the refreshing pineapple variety.
Address: Boulogne Sur Mer 459
Open: Daily noon to midnight
Price per person: daily menu, $150; $200-300 otherwise