While Mutsumi and I can usually quickly agree on food, this week our Saturday dinner discussion quickly devolved into a heated debate. She was adamant about going to Kyoya for Japanese and I dug my heels in on Hill Country BBQ. So rather than continue our impasse while our stomachs grumbled, we each relented and threw caution to the wind, venturing out into the wilds of the Upper West Side to try out one of the many new up-and-coming eateries in our neighborhood.
My buddy Nick Lowe, the Marvel Comics editor, not the "Cruel to Be Kind" crooner, recently invited me to one of his post-softball drink-ups at Dive Bar on 96th and Amsterdam Avenue. And while I walked the fourteen blocks up Amsterdam between my apartment and the bar that evening, I was amazed at how many new restaurants had opened up on that strip. I'd eaten Italian at the always incredible Celeste on 84th and of course had all kinds of appetizing at Barney Greengrass on 85th, but beyond that a new alley of Amsterdam eateries had sprung up.
We stepped out Saturday night really wanting to try this new Belgian Brasserie that's been promising to open up, the B. Cafe, but that was a no-go as it was still under construction. We'd recently tried the Mermaid Inn next door to it, and found the food overrated and the service lacking. So we kept walking. We kept passing restaurant after restaurant and got hungrier and hungrier as we couldn't make up our minds. We were about to call it quits and just turn back to settle in at the ol' reliable Saigon Grill when a boisterous little corner joint suddenly caught our attention... the PIO PIO SALON on the corner of Amsterdam and 94th. A quick look over their Peruvian menu told us we had found the place where we would fill our bellies. And we knew soon after stepping in that we'd made the right call.
PIO PIO was excellent!! We weren't really all too familiar with Peruvian food and didn't recognize a lot of what was on the menu, but we've always been adventurous and that proved to be a good thing here. We asked questions, took recommendations and eventually ordered much too much food, enough to make the waiter question the size of our order. But we forged ahead, eyes bigger than our stomachs, and didn't regret it as every dish was absolutely delicious!
The simple avocado salad we had to start, packed with fresh, crisp vegetables, was the perfect warm-up to the Palta Rellena Con Camarones, which was half an avocado stuffed with large grileld shrimp topped with corn, red onion and this amazing lime-cilantro dressing. That then lead us into the Papa Rellena which was a football-shaped mass of deep-fried mashed potatoes stuffed with a Peruvian meat sauce that was simply fantastic in its use of spice and mix of flavors! And those were just the starters. Next came the Arroz Con Mariscos, or Rice with Seafood, which was a plate of food that could have fed four to six people. It was piled high with clams, mussels, squid, octopus, shrimp, scallops and a huge prawn sitting like an angel on top of it all. There was more seafood than rice in the dish! And it was cooked to perfection! This was all accompanied by a side order of Salchipapa, which is basically french fries and hot dogs. Needless to say, we did end up taking food home. Oh, and I'd be remiss, if I didn't mention the amazing jalapeno garlic dressing/sauce they keep on each table as a condiment. It was out of this world and we were able to sweet talk the recipe for it out of them!
As for atmosphere, it was loud, boisterous and a lot of fun. The place was packed to the gills with people who were clearly regulars, mostly large groups of families and friends. Everyone seemed to be drinking and having a good time. The sangria flowed like water, the music was pumping and there were many occasions when the entire place erupted into song. So if you're looking for a quiet date spot for you and your significant other, this is not that place. But if you're on the market for an amazing eating experience with wonderful food and warm people, PIO PIO is definitely a restaurant I recommend you check out.
Oh, and as for prices... we had one salad, two appetizers, one entree for two and a side dish, plus plenty of sangria and beer. The bill came to only $65.00! You can't beat that.
With PIO PIO now in the neighborhood, we might not be exploring the Upper West Side much more anytime soon.