Sometime back in July; I was driving west on El Cajon Boulevard, when I noticed what looked like a Peruvian Restaurant had taken the place of the old Awash, then Meskerem Ethiopian Restaurant. I truly love Peruvian cuisine and was somewhat excited. The only thing being.....I couldn't figure out when this place was open! And then one Saturday morning, I actually parked and walked on over to find the place was only open Wednesdays thru Saturdays, from noon to five. So coming here on a weekday was pretty much off the table.
When I finally had some time on a weekend, the calendar was ready to turn into the New Year. And the place had nicer sign; "Eli's Signature Peruvian Kitchen".
Entering the place from the rather gritty neighborhood takes you into a pretty nice dining area. Much larger than what the façade would indicate.
The very nice young man working here seated me and handed me a menu, which was fairly Spartan, five dishes and a special of the day. Though the five dishes were probably the most well known and popular Peruvian dishes.
I ordered a Chicha Morada to start. It was actually pretty good; less sweet than most that I've had in the states, the best I've had since we got back from Peru. With just the right touch of sweetness and cinnamon flavor.
I instantly homed in on the Seco con Frijoles ($14.95) because it featured two of my favorite things. Seco is a cilantro and garlic based braise, and my favorite version features lamb. The frijoles here were canary beans, a favorite of mine, which shines in the classic Peruvian dish Tacu Tacu.
In this case it was beef, which was very tender, but I do prefer cordero as it adds a nice gamey dimension to the dish. The sauce was on the mild side, I usually enjoy a more assertive minty-anise flavor, with maybe a bitter sweet touch of huacatay. Still, this wasn't bad at all. The beans were creamy, nicely seasoned and my favorite part of the dish. The salsa criolla had a mild vinegary-spicy kick that helped to cut through any richness. The rice looked dry but was fragrant and nicely done.
This meant a return trip. So the following weekend I returned.
This time I started with the classic Papa a la Huacaina ($6.95).
The potatoes were nicely boiled and tender. The sauce was much thicker than other versions I've had of this dish. It was also quite cheesy and had a mild spicy kick to it. I thought the sauce was a bit too thick for my liking. The versions of this dish I enjoy also usually had some acidic-pungent element (garlic/onions), that helped to cut through things which seemed missing here.
Thankfully, I ordered the Cebiche de Pescado ($15.95). The nice young man told me that the fish for today was sea bass and if I was ok with that.
Of course, the first thing I went for was a taste of the leche de tigre, the marinating liquid for the seafood in cebiche. This version was more tannic than sour/tangy, thus a bit more reserved. It did have a good amount of aji rocoto which gave it an interesting amount of spiciness, though it had me wishing for some spicy-fragrant-fruity aji limo. At first I thought the fish had been "cooking" too long in the leche de tigre, but it was very tender, without any off flavors. The camote was lacking in the sweet-cinnamon flavors that the Missus loves at her favorite places. This was a passable version of Cebiche Pescado.
This had me determined to finally try the lomo saltado, the dish that really got me interesting in Peruvian cuisine. So I returned the next day, a Sunday. I saw that Eli's actually opened at 10am on Sunday, so I returned at a bit past 11. So here's the deal on Sunday's. Eli's serves a version of breakfast from 10 to noon on Sundays.
Which was actually fine by me.
You see Lomito al Jugo ($7.95) is basically lomo saltado without the potatoes and rice. It seemed to be quite inexpensive, so I was surprised at the portion size when it arrived.
While the beef was as I expected this price point a bit on the chewy side; it had no metallic or off flavors. Unlike versions I've had recently, the sauce, and there was quite a bit of sauce wasn't too salty. It also had just the right amount of onions and tomato to make the dish interesting. Perhaps a bit too much black pepper, but I really enjoyed the sauce with the bread.
So, I remained determined to get that lomo saltado. Hence, the return visit the following weekend.
And the Lomo Saltado ($14.95).
Sadly, this was my least favorite dish at Eli's. Not enough sauce, so the rather chewy meat seemed even more dry. The potatoes were very soggy. There wasn't enough onions and tomatoes to add pungency and acid to the dish. This came across as rather bland. The rice was also on the dry and tough side. Bummer.
Still, while the food here won't make me forget about Peru, it's decent, straight-forward, middle of the road, classic fare. Plus the folks here are really nice. Things might take a while to get to you; but that's how Peru is as well. On one of my visits, I had a nice chat with three middle aged women from Peru. They come here every other week. They were rather surprised to see me in this rather out of the way place with limited hours. We had a fun discussion about Peruvian food. And the look on their faces when I started mentioning some of their favorite places in Lima as well.
While the limited hours may be a bit of a hindrance, it's probably for the better based on the neighborhood, I'll probably return when I can.
Eli's Signature Peruvian Kitchen
4979 El Cajon Blvd
San Diego, CA 92115
Wed - Sat Noon - 5pm
Sunday 10am - 3pm