Cholo Soy is an education in the simple pleasures of Peruvian food. Unlike more upscale Peruvian restaurants in town like La Mar, at Cholo Soy there's no printed menu, everything is $10, and the basic lunch counter offers the kind of no-frills atmosphere that reminds me of a market stand in Latin America. What you see here is what you get, and what you get is a great overview of Peruvian cuisine, and an experience that makes you feel grateful for a city with neighborhoods like the Mission, which support these small windows into different worlds.
It's a plain spot: A stainless-steel counter with a few stools, and three tables jutting out from it, in the otherwise empty atrium of Plaza Adelante at 19th and Mission. Peruvian chef/owner Yeral Caldas is behind the counter every day, smiling, greeting customers, verbally running down the menu (there is no printed version), making ceviche, checking in to make sure everything is okay, eagerly offering tidbits of information about the ingredients and preparation.
The clientele is mainly working class; many of the customers order in Spanish, and though there are a few families, most visitors are clad in work boots and sweatshirts. Nearly everyone starts the meal with ceviche, and I understood why after I tried it once, and found myself thinking about it hours and days later. It's the best ceviche I've ever had, bright and fresh-tasting and full of the vibrancy of cilantro and lemon juice, made all the better because it's assembled before your eyes at the counter. An alternate version is laced with the bright yellow aji amarillo pepper of Peru; it's less peppy, more rounded than the original version, but just as good. Both ceviches come with fried corn nuts and a little reservoir of very hot pepper sauce, which loses some of its burn-your-tongue potency when mixed into the ceviche and lends the fish a fiery, slow-burning edge. At $5 a plate, this is the best seafood deal in town.
Each day has its own lunch specials; regulars seemed to come in seeking specific dishes, but as an initiate you never quite know what to expect until Caldas tells you what he's serving, which is part of the place's charm. One day brought a duo of Peruvian potato salads — warm coins of yellow potatoes, a sheaf of green-leaf lettuce, and a still-runny hardboiled egg, topped with your choice of two sauces. Papa a la huanciana was a sunshine-yellow, creamy ahi chili sauce, made with cheese and saltine crackers, while ocopa came with a green, gritty sauce made from ground peanuts that got its vibrant color from a Peruvian herb called tagetes minuta, a type of marigold. The former was rich and buttery and had an upfront flavor that came and went, like hollandaise without the signature tang, while the latter lingered on the tongue and revealed its complexity over time.
Most of the daily specials are simple: tender, braised meat in one form or another, covered with sauce, and served with rice, potatoes, or beans. The seeming humbleness of the dishes belies their excellence as lunch plates. Monday featured asado de res, a slab of braised beef so tender I didn't need the accompanying knife, topped with a layered, spicy sauce made with six different chiles, a proprietary blend of Caldas'. It was served with a huge helping of rice and stewed lima beans, a generous portion for lunch, and a steal at $10. Also on offer that day was a stewed chicken leg, but everyone was eating the cau-cau, a dish of tripe and chopped potatoes in a vibrant yellow sauce, served with seasoned rice. The honeycombs of tripe were clean and spongy, the warm potatoes added texture, and though it was not my personal favorite — I have yet to convert to the tribe of tripe — it seemed to make the offal aficionados around me very happy.
On a Saturday afternoon visit, I was greeted with a haunch of lamb, breathtakingly tender, its earthy flavor perfectly counterpointed by a dark cilantro-based sauce. This was cabrito norteno de cordera, a dish traditionally featuring goat, but it worked beautifully with the muskiness of the lamb leg. Lunch also featured a large hunk of stewed pork in a subtle tomato-chile sauce, which came with a lively side salad of mint, red onion, and lemon juice. Tuesdays are said to bring roast duck and chicken with rice; Wednesday has fried fish and chicken fillets; Thursdays feature a nutty chicken stew. I look forward to returning and sampling it all in the near future.
The meal is best washed down with an Inca Cola, a sugary, bubblegum-y soda that reminds me of the Scottish IRN-BRU, and alleviates the burn if you accidentally inhale too much spice (they also sell cans of Diet Inca for the sugar-adverse). Dulce de leche cookies are available in a cake stand for dessert, or you could just order another helping of ceviche for the road — the sweetness of the fish and the vividness of the citrus is as nice an end to a meal as it is a beginning.