Review: Aló Cenaduria & Piqueos
Not long after the Aló Cenaduria & Piqueos menu was unleashed, founding chef Taco Borga was chided for his spelling. Ceviche is lettered "cebiche" on the menu, a composition Borga hastens to add was molded with the considerable help of Aló executive chef Julia Lopez, who steeped herself in Peruvian kitchen particulars before the restaurant opened. But there is reason to this rhyme. The "v" has been replaced with a "b" to reflect the Peruvian nomenclature.
And this is definitely ceviche with a big fat "b." Diced bits of lustrous halibut cower amongst legions of crispy Peruvian corn kernels and swelling snow-white kernels—steamed into lima-bean softness—called choclo. Think of them as Peruvian hominy impostors. Too, there are planks of sweet potato that, when meshed with bites of crispy corn or chews of soft choclo, comprise a formidable palate-cleaning force, a fisticuff of starchy neutrality designed to reset the taste buds to make the last bite of cebiche as electrifying as the first.
As you might suspect, this goes far beyond mere "v" with "b" replacements. Ceviche (the common Mexican spelling) is chunks of fish and shrimp or even lobster that has been soaked—cooked really—in lime and peppers for hours, sometimes a day or more. In Peru, raw fish is tossed in the citrus juices blended with a fish broth called tiger's milk and served immediately, before it has time to endure an acidic smolder—the Japanese influence at work.
That influence is even more pronounced in the tiraditos, or as Borga calls it, Peruvian sashimi. Strips of yellow tail or tuna percolate rapidly in a pool of sour orange runoff blended with Peruvian peppers, onion, cilantro and garlic with a squeeze of lime. Not an ordinary squeeze of lime, but one with just enough pressure to yield the first five or six drops. More than that and the fish will be lashed with bitterness. Yet despite this alleged citrus stinginess, the fish is abusively scoured with harsh acids to the point where the fish disappears in a curtain of corrosiveness—nothing but pucker.
Aló is a depository of the street foods sold off carts and from stands along the thoroughfares of Mexico and Peru—street foods after cotillion perhaps. There are beef picadillo burritos, enchiladas rolled with tortillas in a choice of mole or roasted tomatillo/pinto bean sauce, and crispy tacos with Peruvian pineapple salsa wadded with coarse cabbage shreds and threads of jicama. There are Peruvian brochettes (anticuchos) and the Afro-Peruvian peasant tacu-tacu, a sticky black bean and rice pie served in a cast iron skillet topped with hash brown-like shreds of radish and tufts of frisée plus a crowning choice of scrambled egg, seafood or a "pork wing." The wing is actually a rib with the meat shoved off the bone. It is then pan-seared and re-bundled around the bone such that it resembles a Buffalo wing, and it does more than any Buffalo wing could hope to. The outside is caramelized into bronze crispness while inside remains moist and sticky and chewy. The rice pie is rich in black bean grip and hearty starch that those raspy radish slivers can allay only slightly.
Think of Borga as Dallas' kingpin of Central and South American cuisine (he's also a partner in Lavendou Bistro Provençal in Plano). He and his pastry chef wife, Dunia, continually flirt with various Latin framings—mostly pastry intensive—through La Duni Latin Café, La Duni Café Latin Kitchen & Baking Studio and the upcoming La Duni Latin Kitchen in NorthPark. At Aló, the Borgas seek to emulate the streets in Mexico City and Lima, and the restaurant does have a certain level of chaotic urban energy. Aló boosts its cred with rough slate tile flooring, rough-hewn horizontal planks on the back wall near the bar and dining room alcoves paved in river stone. Plasma screens pulse with images of exotic Latin flora and birds (the acute accent over the Aló "o" is an exotic bird in flight) and meticulously arranged Aló kitchen creations—still lifes in the Victory Park school of impressionism.
Servers rush about with crosswalk urgency, but this doesn't translate into prompt and primped service. It often lags with long spaces between orders and delivery, even when the restaurant is relatively empty. There are careless blunders, such as when a server filled a glass with Dos Equis amber with such rapidity the head swelled far beyond the rim. The server took note, put the bottle down and walked away, never to return with a rag or even an extra napkin. Flatware and napkins are removed between courses and never replaced, which means place settings must be continuously poached from nearby tables.
Aló can be noisy to the point of exhaustion. It's the surliness of the streets, but it harbors a decent selection of South American wines such as the Tobiano Pinot Noir from Chile, with spry layers of cherry and smoke in the background. Fresh-squeezed lemonade (still or sparkling) is accessorized by slices of lemon and lime as big as Frisbees.
Aló even plays with the seasons. Pulled turkey and dried cherry salad with walnuts and green apples piles chewiness atop chewiness in compelling layers of dining kinetics. Sheets of thin, moist and well-seasoned chicken breast are meticulously draped over a spread of baby spinach with mushrooms, goat cheese, red onion and sesame seeds. Dressings crackle with lime.
But then there's this: The rib eye and wild mushroom gringas come with meat so dry and leached of flavor it could easily be chipped and shat on a shingle. So stick with the seafoods, although the lobster volcanes (toasted tortillas topped with cheese, meat and vegetables) is so riddled with salsa, avocado, cheese and beans that the tiny nuggets of meat simply could not surmount the noise.
But a dish of sautéed calamari—unabashedly, nakedly heaped in a serving bowl—is trim body rings and tender tentacle bundles bathed in a rich broth of wine and parsley and garlic teased with the menacing musk of marine spray—tender and delicious.
Halibut asada with tortillas and rich chunky salsa served in an iron skillet is moist and desperately seasoned. Peruvian potato causas, three egg-like starch pods molded out of potato dough and peppers topped with smoked salmon, shrimp and calamari—plus pickled vegetables for even more savory rush—are delicious.
Desserts come off well too. Pecan tarte is moist, chewy and blisteringly satisfying without the cloying tendencies that clamp the palate. Or revel in crepe ribbons and ice cream with milk chocolate syrup and caramelized pecans.
As alluring as Aló is in its slinky sexiness, it has its flaws, some of them frustrating, but that's no different than the rush of streets, where you feed off the top while riding a gritty underbelly.
4447 N. Central Expressway at Knox, 214-520-9711. Open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday- Friday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $$-$$$
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