Wednesday, September 7, 2011

…Ají Picante

“A Whole New World”.

I was obsessed with that song from the Disney movie “Aladdin” back in 1992.  I had the entire soundtrack on cassette tape (yes, I know, I’m SO old), and played it constantly.  We played it in Wind Ensemble, and I was thrilled to conduct the song during the homecoming game as drum major of the Titan Marching Band for 2 years. 

Stepping into a Disney theme park makes you feel like you’re in a “whole new world”, one where people are kind and generous, and problems don’t exist.

In EPCOT Center’s World Showcase, you really do step into a whole new world – constantly.  You’re in Mexico, and then you walk a little further…and you’re in Norway.  Walk a little further…you’re now in China.  You pass through 11 different countries, including the United States, within the span of about one mile. 

Fastest world tour ever.

When I drove down Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill, I felt like I was driving through a whole new world.  I hadn’t been down this road in probably about 10 years.  My friends and I had decided to try something new, for once, and we looked up a restaurant – I honestly cannot remember what it was – and decided to go there for dinner one night.  We drove into Squirrel Hill, walked to the restaurant – only to discover that it was closed.  We still had to eat, so we walked a bit further down Murray Avenue to Gullifty’s.  Only once we arrived did we discover that it had some of the most famous, delicious, award-winning desserts in the city, and we just HAD to try them after our dinner. 

Best accidental discovery ever.

I couldn’t help but look around constantly as I drove down the road – so many places that I had heard of, and never tried; so many stores that I had never heard of – and wanted to check out.  This one especially caught my eye, and I took a picture so that I would remember to Google it when I got home (don’t worry, I was stopped when I took the pic!):

I’m intrigued – and I will be going to see what it’s all about in the near future.  In the meantime, you can check out their website here:

I drove down Murray Ave. until I spotted Aji Picante – then I needed to find somewhere to park.  I figured that parking in the garage at the Carnegie Library on the corner of Murray and Forbes was my best option.

I arrived at the restaurant, went inside, and spotted Clara, who writes the “Food Collage” blog, waiting at a table for me.  About a week earlier, we had chatted via Twitter, and since we both wanted to try Aji Picante to review for our blogs, we figured that meeting up and trying it together was a good idea. 

Best Twitter convo ever.

We greeted each other and immediately tried to decide what would be the best thing to try.  We agreed on an appetizer – Torrejas de Choclo.  They are basically corn fritters, seasoned with aji amarillo (a yellow Peruvian pepper) and cilantro.  They were served with 3 sauces – guacamole, a mint sauce, and a red pepper sauce.

The fritters themselves were great – just what you’d expect from corn fritters, with a good amount of flavor.  I was not thrilled with the mint sauce, but the guacamole and red pepper sauce were tasty with the fritters (don’t worry, Las Velas – you are still my choice for best guac!)

Clara and I both decided that the Chupe sounded like our best option for an entrée, although we were both intrigued by the purple potato ravioli that was on the menu as well.  I was a bit put off, though, at the number of dishes that were served with French fries – not unheard of in Latino restaurants, but not exactly authentic.

This bowl was HUGE, and both of us ended up taking about half of it home.  The flavor was amazing – this was like eating a flavorful bowl of a light seafood chowder, with plenty of vegetables and different types of seafood, including shrimp, clams, mussels, and these little guys:

Yup, squid.  Squid is delectable. 

Our waitress, who was very helpful and friendly, asked if we wanted dessert.  Clara and I looked at each other, and asked to just SEE the dessert menu, since it was not posted on the website. 

The descriptions of the desserts made me hungry once again, and I asked the waitress about the Mazzamorra Morada – she described it as a very purple-y Jell-O (“morada” does mean “purple” in Spanish, after all), almost like a compote, with a lot of flavor – and very purple-y (she couldn’t stop describing it as purple-y).  Despite our fullness, Clara and I decided to split one.

When it came out, the group at a nearby table – a very LOUD group, by the way – could not help but check out our dessert and ask what it was.  They then proceeded to watch us eat the dessert (awkward…) to see our reaction to the taste.

I hope they ordered it, because my reaction was one of absolute delight.

I can describe the taste as this – it tasted like sangria Jell-O (non-alcoholic, of course).  Sangria is usually made with wine and fruit, but there are non-alcoholic versions, and that is what this tasted like, in a Jell-O-like form – dark, purple-y fruits, such as grapes, plums, and berries, spiced with cloves and cinnamon for an excellent, light-tasting dessert.  It wasn’t extremely filling (thank goodness, since we had eaten such a big entrée), but it was refreshing.

Clara and I chatted long after we had finished our dessert, and we both agreed that our experience at Aji Picante was a positive one, due to both the delicious food and the pleasant company.  Hopefully, we’ll have the opportunity to review more restaurants together in the near future!

In the meantime, I cannot wait to explore my “whole new world” within Pittsburgh – Murray Avenue.  I have a Groupon to use at Cuzamil, also located on that road, which is also not far from Mexico Lindo.  There are other restaurants and stores that I passed that intrigued me – some Hispanic/Latino, some not, but all worth a look (hard to do while driving, too, by the way).

The best part?  It’s only a 20-minute drive from my end of West Mifflin. 

Best local whole new world ever.

Aji Picante
1711 Murray Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15217

Food Collage (Clara’s blog):

Aji Picante on Urbanspoon


  1. Love your post! Mine will have to wait a week or two as I'm on a backlog... And yes, it was a delightful meal with delightful company, and I can't wait to check out another restaurant with you again!

  2. great review of a great restaurant! saw this post when i was looking at Aji Picante's facebook page. only was inclined to comment, in Aji Picante's defense, that french fries actually are a traditional component of several Peruvian dishes. Just one example from wikipedia:

    i tend to see fries and think "not authentic!" too, but in this case i actually think the restaurant did their homework! i had the corn fritters and the chupe too - both were so delicious.