Restaurant review: Criollo

G.A. Benton

Criollo — pronounced cree-oy-yo — is Spanish for “creole,” a word that refers to a language or person with a blended background. Since late October, Criollo has also referred to a Downtown restaurant specializing in that American dining staple — the customized bowl with a base of grains or greens — blended with Peruvian ingredients. Just in case you're looking to dash out for a quick lunch, I'll cut to the chase: Criollo serves rib-sticking portions of good-tasting food.

Chalk some of this up to its background — Criollo is an offshoot of the deservedly popular local mini chain of Si Senor Peruvian Sandwiches. Still, any similarities between the two businesses are overshadowed by stark differences that include being offered more Peruvian flavors and more vegetables at Criollo, but no ciabatta bread. That sounds like a good tradeoff for diners trying to eat more healthfully from time to time.

Some thematically appropriate decorations have been hung — blankets, woven baskets, a framed photo of llamas — but the long-and-narrow room with vintage brick walls and a wooden-plank floor that Criollo occupies hasn't been drastically altered since the days when its previous tenant, The Carvery, called it home. White subway tiles still line the wall behind the cafeteria-style setup, but this is now where your bowl will be assembled.

And you will be having a bowl here. Because, as the menu above the counter relates, only four entrees are offered, and they are all bowls.

You know the ordering drill: Pick your base and sequentially build onto it with selected add-ins. Several of the components might have unfamiliar labels, but most of the flavors are very accessible and, besides, you'll be guided through the process by a knowledgeable, notably friendly server.

Your first decision concerns white rice, green rice (tinted by cilantro), under-seasoned quinoa and lettuce. I usually request equal portions of green rice (the most flavorful) and quinoa (the most nutritious).

Long-cooked soupy legumes complete the hearty foundation of your meal. I go halfsies with the white beans and the more interesting lentils.

Your next decision is key: choosing a main ingredient. If the Aji de Gallina ($10.50) sounds exotic, it's simply a delicious chicken stew with a creamy walnut sauce, and it mines the same comfort-food veins as chicken and dumplings and chicken a la king.

I'm also a fan of the Seco de Carne ($11). You will be, too, if you like beef stew brightened by a zippy cilantro sauce.

The Adobo de Chancha ($11) is pork stewed in an appealing mild chili sauce lightly sweetened with a bit of honey. Mine could have been more tender, but I still enjoyed it.

Going meatless? The Hongos de Ajo ($10) — whole button mushrooms livened by garlic and wine — are pleasant enough.

Then it's time to choose your salad toppings. These include sarza Criolla (a potent onion salad and Peruvian cuisine ubiquity), solterito (like salsa with butter beans, queso fresco and cucumbers), a beet-and-potato salad, lettuce (good for adding crunch), plus fresh-pickled cucumbers.

Because I'm a bowl maximalist — and because they're all good — I inevitably indulge in all of these. Note: Maybe adding so many chilled elements was to blame, but my finished bowls were presented just warm.

Back to the choices. The crowning touches are provided by house sauces. Three tangy-and-creamy condiments bear names probably recognizable to anyone who's ever tried Peruvian food: “huacatay” (it's minty), “rocoto” (chili-based) and “huancaina” (cheesy and spicy).

Prefer something leaner and meaner? The “non-dairy” sauce — which I'm fond of — is fiery, garlicky and acidic. As with most options offered at this easy-to-like newcomer, though, you really can't go wrong with any potential choices.

51 E. Gay St., Downtown