When I was eight years old, I took my first bite of sweet and sour pork. The crispy batter fried pops of pork exploded under my first bite, squeezing out a thick gush of candy cane red sauce so characteristic of North American Chinese food. The sweetness made my eyes twitch; I ended up peeling the flesh out from its crunchy armor and tossing the bloodied batter aside. It would take me more than a decade to realize I was throwing out the best part.
For most of my childhood, Sunday nights meant Chinese food. It was my father’s day to cook and early on he resigned himself to ordering take-out. I do have some young memories of him actually cooking: hamburgers on the barbecue in the unforgiving dry summers, steaming bowls of potato soup carved into golden round bowls made of French bread and the odd scrambled eggs and pancake breakfast for dinner. I don’t remember if these meals were truly terrible—although I do know they were mostly absent of salt—but, nonetheless, a gang of four bickering pre-pubescents is a ruthless audience for any chef.
This was the one night of the week when all six of us actually sat down to eat at the same table. And they were my first experiences with Asian food, and remain amongst my strongest links of nostalgia for food and family. My memories of family meals rarely take my mind to my mother’s most emblematic dishes—chicken cacciatore, roast beef sandwiches with fat bowls of au jus and slightly spicy minestrone soup—but rather doughy rounds of chicken dunked in sesame oil, salty Mongolian beef served over crunchy cellophane noodles, sticky egg fried rice and long flanks of pounded chicken battered in flaky panko crumbs.
I struggled to recreate these flavors anywhere else. Chinese food in Buenos Aires is always the same troupe: overwhelmingly large menus that don’t offer much of anything. Identically stir-fried veggies and meats where the only change is the rice or noodles you choose to go with it; always watered down, oddly beige and absent of even a hint of soy sauce let alone the promised pao.
The closest thing, oddly enough, is Peruvian chifa; a mixture of Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean blended with Limeña sensibilities. Here are a few dishes to start with:
Kam-Lu Wantan at Lio San | Av. Hipólito Yrigoyen 3101, Once
Rather than the ubiquitous squeeze bottles of green hot sauce and Peruvian style mayonnaise that dot the tables at the neighborhood’s chicken roast spots, hour glass shaped bottles of soy sauce wait at each table of this bare looking dining room off of Plaza Miserere. Wantans are a specialty at Lio San and can be ordered in a variety of ways: stacked tall like a radio tower and slowly torn down and dipped into both savory and spicy salsas, softened in a steaming bowl of soup or tossed with long strands of pork in the kam-lu wantan.
Here, wantans are layered with two sheets of dough (rather than folded over into a small triangle) before being tossed into the fryer where they curl into bubbly wafers that hide tender bites of pork. They are then tossed with, you guessed it, more pork and a shiny red glaze made with savory tomato paste and faint whispers of tamarind. Crunchy quarters of onion add a welcome acidity that is punched skyward with a fragrant rocoto sauce. For an extra touch of gluttonous opulence, treat yourself first to a small portion of fried sweet potato or mandioca root.
Arroz Chaufa at Los Trujillanitos | Av. Corrientes 3564, Abasto
Yes, arroz chaufa is the most basic of dishes and a staple on any Peruvian menu, whether it is criolla, chifa or nikkei. But, hear me out: a great chaufa is often the differentiator between a restaurant that is truly great and just kinda good. Under flavored, oily or skimpy rice dishes usually mean an under zealous hand with everything else leaving the kitchen. Los Trujillanitos is a criolla-style restaurant known for their pescado y marisco dishes and amongst my favorite arroz chaufa. Both the beef and chicken saltados are excellent, but the magic is in the mixto which adds a portion of pork to the wok. Ask for an extra bowl of a creamy rocoto hot sauce and be sure to massage into each little morsel of rice.
Chancho con tamarindo at La Ale |Boulogne Sur Mer 459, Abasto
This satisfyingly sweet dish is most 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. Slurp it all down with a freshly blended papaya smoothies for an extra sugar overload. Read our other recommendations for La Ale here.