In my short two years of living in the Bay Area, I have seen only a few sweltering days. We here are a blessed bunch, with our mild winters and temperate (if not downright cool) summers. So when the temperatures skyrocket above our familiar upper 60s, it can be challenging to know how to cope. We’ve already had two heat waves this spring, and are likely poised for more as the summer continues. My advice? Take it in stride and fill up on ceviche.
This chilled, tangy raw fish salad from Latin America is one of the greatest antidotes for the heat as well as for the other risk of warm weather, mid-week, beer-filled barbecue parties that stretch into far later hours than anticipated. Cholo Soy, the nondescript Peruvian restaurant slipped into the lobby of the Plaza Adelante on 19th and Mission, is an excellent place to find your remedy.
Chef and owner Yeral Caldas mans the kitchen every day of the week except for Sundays, serving a concise menu of Peruvian staples for breakfast and lunch. Ceviche and a few other saucy potato-based salads, like papa a la huancaina and ocopa, are on regular offer, and a selection of two or three stewed entrees change daily. On Mondays, you can find cau-cau (tripe stew); Thursdays, aji de gallina (stewed chicken with aji chiles); or Saturdays, cabrito norteño de cordero (braised lamb shank). There are a few tables perched against the wall, but the prime seat is right at the counter, where you can watch Caldas work. Turned towards his food truck-sized kitchen, it is much easier to forget that you’re sitting in a small shopping mall.
On the particularly hot (90+ degree) day of our visit, the specials on offer were twofold: escabeche de pollo or pescado ($8) and carapulcra, a stew made of pork or chicken, potatoes, chiles, and peanuts ($11.50-$12.50). Stew sounded like a terrible idea, even in the cool, breezy lobby, so we decided to sample the two specialty ceviches ($7.50 each) and the escabeche de pollo.
Ceviches at Cholo Soy are served with plenty of sauce. Rumored to cure hangovers better than cold pizza and bacon, this tangy, bright liquor is known as leche de tigre, or tiger’s milk. At its best, the leche is salty, tangy, and refreshing, with just enough heat to erase any lingering fatigue. At Cholo Soy, options are redolent of citrus and a faint whiff of the ocean: the classic ceviche de pescado is lime-forward, with a hint of celery juice and fragrant cilantro, while the bright yellow ceviche chalaco is anchored by the brilliantly sweet notes of aji amarillo chiles. You’ll swear you taste a hint of pineapple, or else a whiff of mango.
The fish, white basa from the Mekong River Delta (per the menu), is gently cured. Each thin slice is presented right after being mixed with citrus, the fish slowly transforming from translucent to opaque as it is eaten. Its flavor is mild and sweet, fully embraced by the potent sauce in which it sits. Slivers of red onion and flecks of cilantro add crunch and herbaceous freshness. Alongside each ceviche order is a small bowl of hotter-than-hot sauce (drizzle with care) and a handful of corn nuts, which shouldn’t be ignored.
The escabeche, perhaps, lacks the glamour of the ceviche, but it is far from boring. In it, a single braised chicken drumstick sits enveloped by a tangy, vinegary sauce spiked with soft caramelized onions. This sweet and sour gravy makes its way into the crevices of the sweet steamed white rice and tender lentils. Get a bite of all of the components for the optimum balance of flavor. Once the chicken’s gone, top any rogue bites of rice and beans with a little leftover leche de tigre and slices of red onion. Delightful.
Depending on its country of origin, the word “cholo” can be used to characterize a range of ethnicities and heritages. In some countries, the word flirts with derogatory slur, but in Peru it is a proud descriptor of indigenous heritage. To name a restaurant “Cholo Soy” (“I am a Cholo”) is to lay claim to an historical past and assert the food’s unique distinction in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. The food at Cholo Soy is the food of the people — inexpensive, exciting, and soul warming.