When Stephan Pyles announced San Salvaje as the name of his Latin-inspired, 70-seat restaurant, I thought he’d made a huge mistake. I wrote a post on SideDish blog that explained that the moniker (pronounced San Sal-VAH-hay) is Spanish for “wild saint.” I tagged it under “Bad Names for Restaurants.”
Pyles wasn’t too happy with me, but when we spoke on the phone about the name, he was good natured. “I just assumed that people in Dallas would know how to say ‘wild’ in Spanish,” Pyles says. “Well, guess what? They don’t. It’s been called everything from San Saliva to San Salvage. I should have learned my lesson when I named my restaurant in Minneapolis Tejas and everybody called it ‘Tee-jus.’ Heck, I called it Tee-jus.”
After speaking with Pyles and eating numerous times at San Salvaje, I learned a lot about South American food, particularly the cuisine of Peru. Pyles has been traveling to South America since the early ’80s. Over time, he developed an affinity for the food in Peru. “My favorite city is Lima in terms of food,” Pyles says. “Of all of the food I’ve discovered, Peruvian is the most exciting and diverse. It keeps calling me back.” He loves to peruse the markets filled with colorful varieties of corn, potatoes, and fruit, and the city streets lined with small cevicherias and chifas, Peruvian-style Chinese restaurants.
I loved the llapingachos. It may be another Spanish word that doesn’t always come out as yah-pin-GAH-choze when ordering, but calling them Ecuadorian potato cakes is selling the dish short. Fingerling potatoes are whipped with eggs, pickled jalapeños, green olives, cilantro, basil, and cotija cheese. The patties are lightly dusted with bread crumbs and flour and gently sautéed. A sous-vide quail egg is slipped on top, and some fresh mustard greens are tucked in as an edible garnish. The potatoes are as light and airy as a souffle, and are complemented by the richness of the egg yolk.
The first two sections of the menu are devoted to causas (towers of whipped potatoes with fillings), tacu tacus (rice and lentil patties), ceviches, and tiraditos (thin slices of raw fish). Pyles, of course, adds his modern signature to these classic and, in some cases, humble foods. Causa Limeña is a short stack of potatoes whipped with aji amarillo pepper to a bright yellow, layered with a delicate quail egg, and topped with shrimp. Tacu tacu, a common rice and bean cake, gets a first-class upgrade. Pyles slathers the top with banana chutney and adds a generous slice of foie gras. This dish is marvelous with a glass of Las Perdices Malbec Ice Wine from Argentina. The combination is forever implanted in my taste memory.