A Peruvian dish worthy of obsession

Las Brasas. 310 E. Howard Ave., Decatur. 404-377-9121, lasbrasasdecatur.com. (Lomo saltado served only Thursdays and Fridays.)

Contigo Peru. 3567 Chamblee Dunwoody Road, Chamblee. 770-455-8338, no website.

Poutine — that French-Canadian train wreck that consists of fries melded together with cheese curds and gravy — has had its moment in the food-culture spotlight. Many bars and taverns throughout North America now feature some version of this dish, often tricked out with, say, barbecue, pastrami or jalapeno peppers. At least one Montreal restaurant famously tops its poutine with a slab of hot foie gras.

Poutine has morphed from a snack, the kind of thing that gets served in a paper cup from an Ottawa food truck, into a mountain. Thus, it has become the gross garbage nachos of our generation.

While I get sick of poutine, I nonetheless have a soft spot for sopped and sloppy french fries. I have thankfully discovered them anew in the Peruvian dish lomo saltado.

This dish originated as a staple of chifa cuisine — the crossover cooking devised by Chinese immigrants in Peru. It combines slivers of beef, onion and tomato in a french fry stir-fry with a touch of soy sauce, a sprinkle of cilantro and big scoop of white rice.

"French fries and rice?" you ask, balking, with disdainful emphasis on the word "and." Yes, that part is non-negotiable.

I’ve eaten lomo saltado in the past at Peruvian restaurants, but I was usually too smitten with the Peruvian ceviche I also ordered to pay it much attention. But when Las Brasas, a tiny Decatur spot that does a brisk carryout business for its rotisserie chicken, began offering lomo saltado as a special, I was reacquainted.

The Las Brasas version is better than any I’ve had locally, with particularly flavorful chunks of beef and fries that manage to absorb all the flavors of the dish while keeping their integrity. Unlike Chinese-American cooking, this is a purely savory concoction. You taste soy sauce, hot pepper, garlic and maybe a touch of vinegar. You don’t taste ginger, cooking wine, sugar or any of those other ingredients that suggest a place on the sweet-spicy continuum of flavors.

Online, there seems to be great variability in the preparation of this simple dish. Some call for cumin and other spices, others for a healthy hit of vinegar. Some are nearly dry, others copiously saucy. The only flavoring constants are soy sauce and aji amarillo, the spicy yellow pepper that perks up much Peruvian food.

I went to the Peruvian aisle of the Buford Highway Farmers Market to see what ingredients home cooks would use to make lomo saltado. Sure enough, there was a selection of different brands of soy sauce as well as aji amarillo, both preserved in brine and blended into a paste. (I know the paste well; I keep a jar in the fridge and love it almost as much as Sriracha.)

Then I went to the nearby restaurant Contigo Peru and marveled at how good the lomo saltado tasted. The beef wasn’t as flavorful as that at Las Brasas, but the textures were on point. The tomato had broken down in the saute pan (the name of the dish means “sauteed loin”) and flavored the vinegary, lightly spicy gravy. The fries were still crisp around the periphery, gloriously soft in the center. The waitress brought a little dish of aji verde, a blended green chile sauce, on the side for added spice.

At home, I tried to get to the soul of lomo saltado in my own kitchen with the ingredients on hand. That meant shreds of leftover roast chicken instead of steak and little fingerling potatoes instead of french fries. But I had everything else.

As the little potatoes roasted to blistered-skin crispness in the oven, I sauteed the rest of it up with a clove of garlic. I had to slap my hand to keep from reaching for the whole Chinese arsenal, and instead let the tomato break down and deglaze all the flavor from the pan. A splash of soy sauce, some of that aji amarillo paste, a mere spoonful of water and few drops of vinegar made the sauce just in time to stir in the potatoes.

It was much blander than my usual effort, but no one complained. In fact, it seemed like you could taste every ingredient better. Some chile sauce on the side was there for the resident spiceheads.

I think my family will be eating many versions of this dish for the foreseeable future.