Sometimes it takes me a while to try out a new restaurant as was the case with Squirrel Hill’s Aji Picante. While Pittsburgh has been home to various Peruvian restaurants for sometime (Chicken Latino in the Strip District and AJ’s in the Oakland section of the city, both of which are casual, inexpensive eateries), Aji marks the entrance of more upscale Peruvian fare onto the Pittsburgh dining scene. D and I tried out Aji for the first time last month and had a terrific meal ranging from the delicious appetizer special we ordered, consisting of scallops and plantains-two of my favorite things-to our entrees to lastly, the warm and friendly service. When my parents came in for the holidays I thought this would be the perfect place to take them, especially since Aji is BYOB which is an added plus for my wine toting mom and dad.
Aji is owned by the same woman who brought the city the beloved breakfast spot, Pamela’s (she’s the Pamela, Pamela Cohen). In addition she and a Peruvian also own a small eatery that offers mostly Peruvian fare and artisan goods called La Feria, which is a small space in the city’s Shadyside neighborhood. I had eaten at La Feria a couple of times and while good, it’s more of a cafe and excluding the beautiful looking crafts and other wares, the food never seemed that authentic. So when I heard about Aji and the fact that the chef was Peruvian, I was stoked.
Although my first experience with the Peruvian soft drink Inka Gold made me want to gag (I don’t recommend trying this), thankfully this toxic drink was not on Aji’s menu. They did feature agua fresca (flavors change nightly according to the menu). Although each time we dined there it was sandia (watermelon), that was fine with me since I am a watermelon fan. D ordered the chicha morada, which is a sweet beverage in Peru made from purple corn and spices. Its use and consumption date back to the pre-colonial era of Peru, even before the creation of the Inca empire. D likened it to a grape fruit tasting chai drink and I concurred. While not a warm beverage, it still had a soothing taste to it.
Although the menu at Aji is somewhat on the smaller side, there is however a decent selection of nightly specials. The first time we ate there we went with a special for our starter course, while on my second visit, D and I split an empanada ($4) filled with aji de gallina, a classic Peruvian dish made with aji peppers, chicken, and a cream sauce. My dad ordered a mushroom and cheese empanada. Other tantalizing appetizer selections include causas which are “silky mashed potatoes, seasoned with aji amarillo, lime, and served slightly chilled.” Your options with these include either shrimp ($5) or grilled baby octopus ($6).
The raw seafood cocktail ceviche is Peru’s thing, so there are vast ceviche options to select from. In addition, Aji also offers three fish dishes and two vegetarian dishes, one of which is locro de zapallo ($19), Andean butternut squash stew with feta cheese, peas, corn, and potatoes and baked in an acorn squash. I’ve passed up this dish two times now so on my next visit to Aji I simply must order it.
For my entree I went with the seco de cerdo ($19) which when translated literally from Spanish means “dry pork.” It consisted of crisped pork shank confit served over a bean puree, topped with caramelized butternut squash, carrots, and peas and cooked in a dark beer and cilantro sauce. I loved the accompaniments, the pork to a lesser degree. It was a good selection but one I probably wouldn’t choose again. (My dad also ordered this.)
My mom selected aji de gallina ($17) which was what I had ordered the first time I dined there (and also was the filling for my empanada). It’s flavored with hot peppers, cheese, and peanuts, served over rice and topped with olives and eggs. On a cold winter night it’s a great dish; I can see why it’s so popular in the Andes, which get very cold at night.
D opted for the pollo al horno ($18), a monstrous crispy, roasted half of a chicken, and marinated in aji panca, along with Argentinian chimichurri and ají amarillo aïoli for dipping. His dish also came with two sides. Each visit he went with the fries (very tasty and crisp, just like in Belgium) and on this most recent visit, he also selected corn in cumin butter, which he said was a bit spicy.
And unlike on our first visit, we did opt for the dessert this time. D and I split a Peruvian style rice pudding (it was not at all what I expected as one didn’t taste rice grains at all) and my parents went with an extremely non-Peruvian sweet finish, creme brulee.
I have loved each dining experience at Aji and I am just so glad that a Pittsburgh native forged such a love for the country of Peru-its culture, its food, its sights-and is now sharing it with the people of Pittsburgh. While a trip to Peru is still at the top of my wish list, dining at Aji will help in filling the void in the meantime.