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Ah, saltado. Here’s a stir-fry that neatly summarizes Peruvian-Chinese food, known as comida chifa, in one fell swoop of meat and veggies. Not completely Chinese or completely Peruvian, saltado is bicultural, a perfect melting-pot dish . . . on a plate usually as vast as Lake Titicaca.
Its components are simple: usually a meat, some tomato and red onion cut into strips. For sure, it must come with a side of French fries, a nod to the Andean roots of the common potato. The use of soy sauce in saltado’s preparation by wok hints at its origins in the influx of Chinese into Peru beginning in the 19th century. But the populist appeal of saltado has gone beyond the country’s Chinese enclaves and even its borders, having become the gateway dish to Peruvian cuisine across Southern California.
I’ve yet to find a Peruvian restaurant in Orange County that doesn’t do saltado, whether with beef (lomo saltado), chicken (saltado de pollo) or seafood (saltado de mariscos). The new Aji Limon in Buena Park doesn’t stray from this rule. Better than that, though, is that it may just be the county’s first restaurant to embrace chifa as a specialty. Here, at this former Mexican restaurant on the border of Anaheim and Buena Park, you’ll see soccer players and soccer moms, faces both Asian and Latino, foraging through a Sino-Andean menu dotted with the kinds of dishes better suited to Calle Capón (Lima’s Chinatown) than the land of Knott’s.
Through a peek-a-boo window staring at the stoves, you’ll witness the cooks gripping handles of jet-black woks atop roaring whooshes of flames. Cascades of food get tossed in the concave vessels, the scents enticing, the clangs of metal-on-metal music to the ears. But here, chow mein is called tallarin tay pa, still good enough to pass muster in San Gabriel Valley. Embraced by a light, cornstarch-thickened gravy that coats everything, dark-meat chicken chunks meet snow peas, slices of celery and red bell peppers, chopped red onion, and napa cabbage leaves. Beneath, you discover tangles of thin egg noodles thoroughly lubricated by that sauce. A dollar more buys you the tallarin tay pa especial, the same dish now teeming with the chicken as well as red-rimmed char siu pork, sliced beef, shrimp and squid.
You can also opt for the especial version of the Chinese-Peruvian fried-rice dish called chaufa, which contains all the aforementioned proteins. The mound Aji Limon serves you has every oil-slicked grain touched by soy, beaten egg and a hint of smoky wok magic; a thimble of razor-sliced pickled daikon sits on the side, ready to refresh your palate. The daikon reappears as the accompaniment for the chicharrón de pollo estilo chifa, deep-fried chicken strips marinated to a gnarled and almost-smoky mahogany sweetness. Shaoxing rice wine lurks somewhere in that marinade, but there’s definitely soy sauce, leaving no doubt of its Chinese roots even if you ignore the five-spice powder in its lemon-juice dipping sauce. Meanwhile, pescado a vapor is an abridged version of the whole-steamed-fish platters that serve as a climax at Chinese wedding banquets. Aji Limon serves its rendition as a smaller, boneless fillet scalded by a cauterizing pour of hot oil and soy sauce, garnished with slivered ginger and scallions as aromatics.
Other dishes, such as the sweet-and-sour-like pollo ti pa kai, are Chinese in the same way Panda Express’ orange chicken is. But just like its American cousin, it’s mysteriously addicting: Chicken meat, chopped up and reformed into bouncy, deep-fried balls, are joined by crispy wonton skins to swim in a tamarind-soured sauce so brightly tinted with red food coloring it burns retinas.
The rest of the menu is a representative run-through of dependable Peruvian staples such as the fried seafood mountain called jalea, ceviches of every conceivable stripe, and an appetizer called causa, a sublime, cold-served dome of mashed potatoes holding back a mayo-dressed shredded-chicken filling. Sopa a la minuta, a Peruvian creole dish I’ve not seen anywhere but here, is made with chopped beef, angel-hair noodles, milk, aji panca and a fried egg dropped into the caramel-colored soup, followed closely by a piece of toast that floats on the surface, suggesting a French-onion-soup kind of inspiration.
And then, of course, there’s Aji Limon’s saltado, a rendition that immediately distinguishes itself from its competitors by the made-from-scratch fries. You can see the difference in the extra effort. The fried-potato spears take on a special luminescence, the crispy yellow exterior slightly porous and well-equipped to soak up the pooling sauce not already absorbed by the rice. This is a saltado against which to measure all others, an extraordinary amalgamation of the Chinese and the Latino only the hot crucible of a wok can forge—neither too soupy nor too greasy, every bit the diplomatic ambassador of chifa cuisine to OC as the restaurant is its temple.
Aji Limon, 7035 Lincoln Ave., Buena Park, (714) 229-1500; ajilimon.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Entrées, $8.75-$13.85.
This review appeared in print as "The Champion of Chifa: Aji Limon just might be the county’s first restaurant to specialize in Peruvian-Chinese food—and that’s a good thing."