At Aji Peruvian Cuisine in Long Beach's Retro Row, there are potatoes everywhere: boiled, mashed, fried—sometimes all three. Potatoes are buried like treasures beneath the shredded-chicken-studded gravy of the aji de gallina and displayed like polished gemstones next to skirt steak in the bistec a lo pobre.
But even before you order any of these, there are the house-made potato chips drizzled with a spicy homemade aioli. They're what the servers bring to start you off instead of bread as soon as you sit down in this charming exposed-brick dining room. And these are the best possible kind of chips, occupying that sweet spot of crispness and crunch between Lay's and kettle-cooked.
As there may not be any culture that reveres the humble tuber more than the ancient Incas, there may not be a restaurant in California that respects the potato more than Aji. Here, it's treated not as a throwaway starch, but an ingredient that gets equal footing with meat.
I saw this with the lomito saltado, a version of lomo saltado, which was, without question, the best I've had anywhere. Everything about the dish—from the delicate balance of cumin and soy sauce to the way the red onion was wilted so its harshness was gone but its snap was intact—was perfect. But the potatoes were something else. While most Peruvian joints settle on frozen fries and toss them into the wok with the rest of the saltado, here, they're cut by hand, fried to a flawless golden sheen, then stacked separately from the stir-fry in the final dish. And when I ate them in concert with nuggets of seared tenderloin so soft they melted like the best Vietnamese bo luc lac, I forgot for a moment that, with the rice, the dish effectively had two forms of carbohydrates on the plate—but I wouldn't have had it any other way.
The papa rellena appetizer is also a must. It's essentially a meat-filled Nerf football of mashed potato that's carefully deep-fried to form a crisp outer shell. One order is enough for a table, and you want to portion it out as though it were a shepherd's pie—every person getting an equal share of the sirloin-steak bits, the potato and the acid-spiked, shredded-red-onion topping called salsa criolla that's essential to cut through it all.
Aji's best potato-centric appetizer, though, is the causa, which actually has its own section independent from the appetizer list. And the best one to get is the one that has all four of them together on an oblong plate as a sampler. Each stack begins with a tiny scoop of chilled mashed spuds, a slice of avocado, then a spoonful of either crab, shrimp, tuna or octopus on top of that. Finally, depending on the causa, the kitchen staff crowns each tower with a jalapeño, a fried shrimp, a quartered egg or a slice of octopus. You approach the precarious things carefully, making sure to spoon up whatever complementary sauce or aioli that's been dribbled on each.
If the octopus in the causa has whetted your appetite for a more substantial serving of tentacles, there's an anticucho of octopus the menu describes as “two-way cooked.” For sure, one of the ways was by open flames. Each bite from my plate of disembodied cephalopod appendages was evidence of it: smoky and gilded with char. But even with this dish, there was no escaping the potato—there it was on the side as a warm salad of fingerlings.
Among the few dishes that don't have potato in it are the three varieties of fried rice. There's a Peruvian-style chaufa, but also a candy-sweet Shrimp Chaufa My Way, which tastes more like a Thai-style pineapple fried rice than anything from Peru. The Seco de Res, a hunk of short rib braised in beer and cilantro, is another potatoless entrée. Instead, it has rice and beans, but the Chupe de Camarones, a rich and heavy shrimp chowder, has potatoes in spades in addition to the rice. It tastes like spicy lobster bisque at first, but it turns into seafood risotto if you take it home after the rice absorbs all the liquid.
As no Peruvian joint could exist without offering ceviche, Aji has three, two of them made with a leche de tigre so fiery and punchy it's nearly an aguachile. A third ceviche, Ceviche Nikkei, is actually more of a poke—it employs soy sauce, ginger, sesame oil and raw cubes of ahi instead of the standards of sea bass and lime juice.
Yes, you will have plenty of potatoes and ceviches here, but in my opinion, there may be no better proof of Aji's Peruvianness than the presence of lucuma ice cream, a flavor from a subtropical fruit that, I'm told, is more popular than chocolate in Lima—and that's probably only because there's no such thing as potato ice cream.
Aji Peruvian Cuisine, 2308 E. Fourth St., Long Beach, (562) 439-8545; ajiperuvian.com. Open Mon., 5-10 p.m.; Tues.-Thurs., 4-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m.; Sun., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $40-$60, food only. Beer and wine.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.