Friday, April 1, 2016

Los Andes Faces a ‘Mountain’ of Scrutiny

If the Andes in South America represent the largest continental mountain range in the world, then the Providence-based restaurant, Los Andes, typifies a steep decline from the lofty expectations and reputation that precedes it. Situated in a rather sketchy, dilapidated neighborhood on Chalkstone Avenue (most definitely off the beaten path from the more polished downtown area and the Italian-American charm of the Hill), the restaurant’s exterior more closely resembles the now shuttered Whitey Bulger South Boston bar Triple O’s (replete with brick exterior, blue awning and illuminated signs from the windows harkening to the 1970s) than a modern, inviting setting. And yet, inexplicably, Los Andes features free valet service and servers in suits and ties that seem out of synch with its ultra-casual ambience and décor (including a large fish tank separating an old-school bar from the main dining room). It’s evident that the restaurant is trying too hard to overcompensate for these shortcomings, and we haven’t even touched our food yet.

                That’s not to say that some of the very affordable Peruvian and Bolivian inspired meat and seafood dishes don’t reach the culinary heights that Los Andes’s name implies. A ceviche martini ($9.95) is stuffed with fresh tilapia, squid, shrimp, and mussels, a solid seafood cocktail. It’s relatively well seasoned with fish sauce, lime juice (perhaps applied a tad too generously given a trace of excess sourness) and cilantro. My dining companion and I - always the adventurous, Anthony Bourdain-like eaters that we are - are fascinated by and immediately gravitate towards a unique special of llama tacos ($11.99), which are packed with surprisingly tender, un-gamey shredded meat. Empanadas de pollo ($2.95) are satisfying, two flakey pastries filled with nicely seasoned shredded chicken (a cheese version, however, is quite bland).

                While most entrees (majority of which range from $11.95-$19.95) show promise, they often fail to live up to the hype. The menu is laced with exciting options at first glance, but upon closer review, is extremely redundant and protein/carb heavy, as most dishes are accompanied by fried eggs, rice, and yucca. The Jalea (Peruvian fisherman medley, $16.95) is packed with a generous portion of seafood that was nicely battered with kiko soy and garlic, but the chalaca salsa it was topped with was far too mild, while some of the fish itself – seemingly undercooked - left my stomach in knots after two unsuccessful attempts to consume it. Paella ($16.95) was a satisfactory, traditional version that could have benefitted from additional heat, smokiness, and a bit more grittiness on the rice.

                Fortunately, I have a sweet tooth, and it was satisfied with a delightful house special of passion fruit coconut cheesecake (all of the desserts were shown off a la carte by our server), the cheesecake airy and light, while the coconut flakers were discernably scrumptious.

                Service was adequate, our waitress knowledgeable and competent enough with the exception of an extremely odd, uncomfortable exchange I shared with her over an incorrectly made cocktail. When I noticed that my drink was mixed with neither fresh pineapple slices or jalapeno liquor, the waitress never apologized, neither offering me a new drink nor comping it altogether from our bill. Instead, she replied that “… the bartender must have been out of pineapple, so that’s why you got what you got.” Neat.

                But given all of the surrounding hype that Los Andes has achieved on reviewer sites like Yelp, the restaurant evokes the same sort of response from me – merely a shrug. What’s the big deal about this place, after all? I suppose if the food is slightly above average quality and reasonably priced, the masses will approve. Me? I’d rather take my culinary expedition elsewhere prior to scaling the culinary heights of Los Andes. Its peaks simply aren’t high enough to warrant enough excitement for a return trip.

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