Some restaurants seize the spirit of Now, a trick far harder than it sounds. What qualifies as Now when you’re conceiving and planning a restaurant may well be Then by the time you get the damn thing open.
Others, by zeroing in on flavors both universal and pure, transcend time and place. Gastón Acurio’s Tanta, a dynamic four-month-old spot in River North, represents one of those phenoms. With its creative dishes, colorful room, and gracious staffers, it would be a hit in 1983 or 2023, in Chicago or Barcelona or anywhere. It’s no coincidence that Acurio owns restaurants in 12 countries and does pretty well regardless of the local food predilections.
Peru has one of the world’s great culinary traditions: a heady mix of lime-soaked seviche, garlicky beef skewers, punchy Huancaina sauce with aji amarillo chili peppers, and thousands of variations on potatoes and quinoa. No one has done more to celebrate Peruvian food than Acurio, 46, a bona fide television/cookbook/fine-dining/fast-food star who towers over his nation’s cuisine like God, if God had a Cordon Bleu degree. And he’s not just regurgitating classics for the masses; the man has embraced Peru’s nascent rush to enfold Asian flavors in chifa (Peruvian-Chinese) and Nikkei (Peruvian-Japanese) cookery.
Whether you head for the street, the coast, or beyond, it all comes together on chef de cuisine Jesus Delgado’s sprawling menu without making your head spin. (Unless you try the pisco tasting, in which case your head is your business.) Most people will gravitate toward the Street Food Feast, a shareable platter of marinated chicken anticuchos, perfect flaky empanadas, creamy papa (potatoes) a la Huancaina, and pan con chicharrón (irresistible pork sliders). Another no-brainer: pollo a la brasa, a wonderful Amish roasted chicken with an assortment of goodies, including three aji sauces and arroz con choclo (rice with sweet corn, cream, and cheese).
Things get especially interesting when international influences creep in. Peruvians may have invented seviche as we know it, but the best of six variations on Tanta’s menu is the Japanese-inspired Nikkei version, uniting ahi tuna, avocado, cucumber, and tamarind—Eastern flavors, South American technique. The rib eye a lo pobre, a take on the working-class Afro-Peruvian tacu tacu, includes 20 ounces of stunning wet-aged, grass-fed beef slathered in chorrillana sauce. It’s topped with a fried egg, bottomed with a rice-and-bean pancake, and served with fried plantains: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert in one unforgettable dish. And the evocatively named Chaufa Aeropuerto, pork fried rice and vermicelli stirred in a sizzling stone bowl, à la the Korean dish dol sot bibimbap, integrates Peru’s immigrant faction in the most organic way.
Not everything works: Oddities such as a dense paiche (Amazon fish) with a yucca and bacon mash fare no better than the quinoa caprese, a dubious side at best. But many of Tanta’s desserts, such as the las trufas de chocolate—bite-size chocolate bombs studded with popped quinoa, orange sauce, and tea lime—ooze a rich and tangy appeal. Cocktails lean to the strong and colorful, such El Chingon, which delivers an outrageusly peppery rocoto chile blast with a massive orange ice ball like a setting sun that never disappears beneath the horizon.
Tanta’s lively vibe belies the solemnity of its mission. On one of my visits, a pickled bar crawler at the next table unleashed a 100-decibel “WOO-HOO!”—as pickled bar crawlers are wont to do in this neighborhood—and the proficient manager gave her a dressing-down unlike anything seen beyond an NFL sideline. That response spoke even louder: Tanta is a serious restaurant, and it doesn’t need River North’s woo-hooers.