For the second installment in our “Restaurants near the Capitol Theatre” series, we’re heading into Peruvian territory.
Port Chester has about 10 Peruvian restaurants if you include ones that incorporate other South American food. This was not a choice to be made lightly, so I enlisted my friend Judy, a native of Peru who lives in Irvington. She and her husband frequent Port Chester for Peruvian food, but they never settled on a particular favorite.
The obvious choice would have been Pollo a la Brasa Misti on North Main, which has a big loyal following and a reputation for tasty rotisserie chicken. Misti is named for a volcano in Arequipa, Peru, the owner’s hometown and Judy’s as well. The restaurant’s popularity is Judy’s only complaint, because there’s often a wait.
So she steered us over to Nico’s Chicken, a small place on Irving Avenue that happens to be one block from The Capitol. “If I’m hungry, I come over here,” she said.
Despite the bright blue awning, Nico’s could escape notice because of its location. Irving Avenue runs behind Westchester Avenue and feels like it’s in the theater’s shadow. Inside the narrow restaurant are about a dozen wooden tables and minimal wall decor – brushed-steel sconces and folksy drawings of chickens. Small groups of friends were sharing pitchers of sangria and plates of lomo saltado, the Chinese-Peruvian stir-fry. The menu ranges from seafood to meat-and-potato mountain fare.
We opted right away for quinoa soup, a special for the day. Now, I associate quinoa with light, citrusy salads from Whole Foods. This was not that. This was a hearty stew. Hunks of beef and potato were served in a broth flecked with the tiny curlicue grains, and a lime wedge on the side. Airy white rolls arrived with two creamy sauces – a red one flavored with rocoto chile and the other with the yellow aji pepper – and that was meal enough.
But we were tempted over to the coast, having come all this way. Chaufa de mariscos, fried rice with seafood, was a hill of calamari, mussels and crab mixed with rice and a bold soy-sauce flavor. Judy detected another Asian seasoning, kion, similar to garlic.
Fish-and-shrimp ceviche was lime-drenched and spicy, heaped with red onion slices. You can set the spiciness to your wishes: “medium” was plenty strong for my heat-loving taste buds. If Peruvian ceviche is new to you, the topping of toasted corn kernels might come as a surprise.
Other entrees are an $8 half-chicken combo with two sides; the well-loved anticuchos – beef heart skewers, and salchipapa – potatoes mixed with hot dogs and sauce, would you believe. You can snack on fried yucca and other sides, or experience a true Peruvian moment and order an ear of corn – choclo, the dense, large-grained variety – coated with cheese. Entrees are priced from about $8 to $17.
To drink, there’s chicha morada, a sweet refreshment made with juice and purple corn, and chicha de jora – thick and ciderlike – made with fermented corn. The Peruvian beer Cusquena is available, along with wine.
I’m not always tempted by dessert, but Judy called out for “alfajor,” two round cookies with manjar, or caramel, spread in between. “Like an Oreo,” Judy explained in bicultural fashion. The last alfajor had been claimed by two gentlemen conversing over sangria, so we consented to the alternative, tres leches cake. This, I suspected, might be a bland, unwise splurge in calories – topped by whipped cream and strands of strawberry and caramel sauce. After a spoonful, I happily cashed in. The cake was delightfully fresh, cool and moist, having soaked up a sweet pool of milk.
Nico’s seems to trust that you don’t want fancy garnishes, decorations or party music distracting you from good food and conversation. Latin pop tunes from Mana, Shakira and Juanes keep the mood lively but not jumpy. That allowed Judy and I — who meet regularly in order to practice our English and Spanish, respectively — to converse about the Dream Act, Marco Rubio, the recent improvement in the Peruvian economy and the influx of Chinese immigrants to Peru after World War II.
The atmosphere is equally accommodating to couples, families with kids, and small groups. It’s a low-key sibling to the festive Acuario on North Main Street, which feels like a little trip to the tropics. Consider Nico’s if you want an easygoing, quality dinner that won’t upstage the concert.
(For Vol. 1 in this series, click here.)
Nico’s Chicken: A relaxed and comfortable Peruvian restaurant with red banquettes, wood tables, home-style food and good value.
Details: 137 Irving Ave., Port Chester, (914) 305-6760
Go if you’re looking for: a place near The Cap that offers plenty of pleasing menu choices and a taste of something a bit different.
Signature dish: Pollo a la brasa, or Peruvian rotisserie chicken, was the original focus of this place, and comes in value-oriented combinations. But the ceviche, rice dishes and beef are winners also.
Bet you didn’t know: Beef heart skewers, or anticuchos, are a Peruvian favorite. I didn’t have the heart to try it, so let us know what you think.
– Leah Rae