Dinner with Stephan Pyles is always going to be an adventure, as it was on our most recent visit to the chef’s latest incarnation on Ross Avenue, San Salvaje. Here you will savor flavors from most anywhere south of Harlingen, Texas. This would include Mexico, Central and South America, and a heavy influence from Peru, the true breadbasket of the planet.
Peru has no less than 3,000 varieties of potatoes, 2,000 species of fish, 650 varieties of native fruits. With 7 centuries of history and many influences, Peruvian cuisine is essentially based on Inca tradition tempered by many waves of migration. To mark his menu with dishes he found on a variety of excursions to Peru, chef Pyles has the perfect soundboard for a variety of flavors., and he does them very well.
Although very concise, the menu reads like an encyclopedia of cuisine from the regions they originate. Pyles is playful with the dishes, but they stay true to their origins. This is certainly evident in the tacu tacus, ceviches, arepas and empanadas.
“I wanted to do a restaurant that represents all of Latin America because of my extensive travels in Mexico, Central and South America. Mexico, Peru, Argentina and Brazil will be well represented on the menu, but we also have some influences from Cuba and the Caribbean,” said Pyles.
It is every bit as fun as it sounds, and translates perfectly to the plate.
Crunchy Squid Tacos The wine list will showcase South America varietals, as well as Latin cocktails such as Pisco Sours and Caipirinhas. Chicha Morada are also be featured. They are made with Peruvian purple corn, pineapple and spices. As traditionally made, the drink will be infused with Pisco Porton. Be sure to check out the flight of Piscos available on the menu for a mere $10. Each of the three represented from both Peru and Chile have their own distinctive flavor profiles. Our preference is the more rounded Porton from Peru.
Do not miss the Pisco Margarita, which takes more than a few minutes as they squeeze plenty of lime for each order to make this beautiful cocktail rimmed with delicate slivers of zest, giving this iridescent gold fleck appearance.
Top honors are awarded across the board for their spirited tastes on the menu, including the Causa Limeña Classico, which looks like a small potato tower stuffed with a quail egg, and topped with spicy shrimp. This is a perfect starter, and definitely meant to be shared, as are most dishes on the menu. Our favorite Tiradito, which is a Peruvian raw dish similar to a carpaccio, was the Kampachi Tiradito. This is thinly sliced Amberjack perfumed with fennel criollo and vanilla. Perhaps our favorite dish on the entire menu, and not to be missed.
The fish is delicate and buttery. Stephan Pyles has literally written he book on tamales, and he also has a few choice version on the San Salvaje menu. Some are filled with wild mushrooms, others with lobster or wild boar. All very delicious. You will find these listed in the same section as the crispy squid tacos, which can be found next to the the cabrito or smoked duck tacos. Those tortillas are stone ground and rolled out in house, and worth the price of admission alone. Heavenly.
Sweet corn humita, lobster and fried avocado Another amazing section on the menu are the Arepas and Empanadas. Consider Arepas a smallish flatbread made with maize. We enjoyed the crab and South Texas grapefruit version, and actually scrapped for the last bite of this shared plate. The dish we were most eager to sample was the fried hole red snapper that was adorned with pickled fried green beans, surrounded b a mango-habanero mojo. The fish was light and delicate for being fried, and was also extremely meaty. Consider this a plate of joy.
Braised pork cheek, chicharron Desserts are bountiful, and it is best just to order them all, as the choices are difficult at best. But you will not wish to miss the steaming hot picarones which resemble doughnuts and are made with sweet potato. They are a touch heavier than your average doughnut due to the potato mix, but they are so delicate and delicious. These are a delicate Peruvian street food that are often found wrapped in the latest edition of the daily newspaper. That is exactly how Pyles serves his version.
Look for live music on the weekends, and be prepared to show off your cha-cha, merengue and salsa skills. “Celebrating the Latin culture with its diversity, high-spiritedness, and much loved customs and traditions gives a really broad canvass to paint San Salvaje on,” said Pyles.