August 20, 2019

Peruvian, Fortifying and Frank, at Warique in Queens

Peruvian, Fortifying and Frank, at Warique in Queens


In Peru, a warique is a humble, steadfastly unsleek restaurant, where you might eat crouched on a plastic chair at a shared table, without formality or comfort, and be glad.

Warique, in Jackson Heights, Queens, is more handsome and polished, with mirrors in sunburst frames and a long banquette amenable to lingering. But to Jimmy Lozano, it still has the spirit of the restaurant that his cousins once ran out of their home in Pucallpa in the Amazonian rain forest of eastern Peru.

The food is fortifying and frank in its appeal, like salchipapas, fat French fries tumbled with snaking curlicues of hot dog, and pollo a la brasa, chicken left to commune for a day with spices that Mr. Lozano won’t reveal (it’s his grandmother’s recipe), then roasted on a spit until the skin is charred vellum.

A meal begins with a fistful of maiz chulpe, dried corn kernels toasted into burnished teardrops that crack and are almost all air within. More corn comes in the form of a tamal criollo, steamed in a banana leaf and arriving unpeeled, a bronze length of corn dough. It’s embedded with chicken, black olives and a quarter of a hard-boiled egg, and denser than its Mexican counterpart, verging on cake.

Veal hearts are sliced into sheets the size of an open palm, so thin they’re halfway to surrender before you lift the knife. The meat is dressed simply, with a touch of ají panca, a pepper native to Peru that delivers a smack of bright fruit and a ghosting smoke.

Jalea, a stack of fried seafood structured somewhere between temple and rubble, is a bounty of mussels, shrimp, calamari and gentle white-fleshed corvina from the deeps. They’re rescued from the fryer at peak crispness, impeccably light, without a sheen of oil.

For ají de gallina, chicken breast is chopped and engulfed in a vivid yellow sauce of ají amarillo, which, even when crushed, retains a memory of the pepper’s fleshiness and sweet heat: a summer day incarnate.

Each bite of ceviche is like starting the meal again, the lime scouring the palate clean. There’s garlic in there, a little musk offset by the sunniness of cilantro. And a sting of ají amarillo or, if you ask for it, the fiercer rocoto chile, with sweet potato on the side to assuage the heat.

I kept spooning up the curing juices, until finally I just ordered leche de tigre — the same beautiful marinade tinged with brine, now thickened with pulverized fish. It’s served in a stemmed, gape-mouthed dish that might as well be a cocktail glass, the better to drink it straight and to properly understand why it’s nicknamed levanta muertos: raise the dead.

For dessert, there are picarones, great knobby halos of dough in a molasses-thick syrup of raw cane sugar and stewed figs, and ice cream made from lucuma, an Andean fruit with caramel in its soul.

A pair of ceramic bulls stands on a shelf — in Peru, they would appear on the roof, to protect those living below — alongside store-bought bottles of chicha morada, a brew of purple corn. Better is Mr. Lozano’s homemade version of the drink, the corn boiled until near collapse with cinnamon sticks, apple and pineapple peel, then strained into a dark pour of purple on its way to black. It’s mellow and earthy, faintly piqued by lime, with the sparest dose of sugar syrup.

Mr. Lozano opened the first iteration of Warique on the Upper West Side in 2011. The chef, Claudio Gallino, a native of Mexico, started out washing dishes, but Mr. Lozano saw that he had a passion for cooking and decided to entrust him with his grandmother’s secrets.

When the rent went up, Mr. Lozano moved Warique first to Astoria, Queens, in 2015, and then to Jackson Heights this March, trading a dining room with 50 seats for a recently vacated taco joint with fewer than half that number.

Still, the coziness is true to the restaurant’s name. Some linguists attribute warique to the Castilian Spanish word guarida, or hide-out; others trace it back to Quechua, the language of the Incan empire. In either case, the meaning is the same: a secret place, known only to a few — or even when everyone knows, a place that, while you’re there, makes you feel like it’s yours alone.

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