Stick your fork into Chilenazo's pastel de choclo and you hit culinary pay dirt. A saucy, chunky, herb-laden filling sits beneath the souffléed fresh corn crust of this majestic pie-like concoction that comes steaming to the table in an individual earthenware bowl. Deep below its puffy exterior is braised chicken interspersed with pino, a blend of onions nearly caramelized with ground beef then punctuated with fresh basil, raisins and hard-cooked egg. It's a flavor fusion that upholds the pastel's reputation as Chile's national dish.
In L.A., the pastel may be as rare as Uzbek holiday desserts; local Chilean restaurants are exceptionally thin on the ground. But now Chilenazo, a small, spare, modern cafe in Canoga Park, proudly fills our Chilean food gap with desserts and buttery rolls baked on the premises, an expanding list of homey Chilean comfort foods and its devotion to Chile's other national specialty, chacareros.
More than a dozen variations of these mighty Dagwood-style sandwiches are pictured in blazing color above the cash register. Chacareros hold the same place in the hearts of Chileans as do burgers in the U.S., and Chilenazo elevates them to an art form.
Their sturdy house-baked buns, called fricas, don't dissolve under the weight of piled-on ingredients that begin with a foundation of grilled chicken or layers of thickly sliced beef. Next comes a mountain of palta, a velvety spread of whipped ripe avocado topped off with old-fashioned Escoffier-style diced, peeled tomatoes. Most Chileans would also opt for the deliciously thick house-made mayonnaise and then spoon on plenty of pebre, an oniony herbal relish that turbocharges the taste of the entire construction.
A truly good chacarero requires a knife and fork to eat. "We love them loaded — the messier the better," says Giancarlo Aguilera, who opened the cafe with his wife, Cecilia Gonzalez, in September. The sandwiches are expected to be huge, but Chilenazo offers small and medium sizes to accommodate North American tastes.
It would seem there's a chacarero for every appetite. Chile's German immigrant legacy shows up in garnishes of sauerkraut and melty Muenster cheese. The lo pobre, ostensibly a farmworker's sandwich, is liberally mounded with grilled onions and fried eggs.
Possibly the most majestic of all chacareros would be the "completa" with a layer of fresh French-cut string beans and de-seeded jalapeños topping the customary garnishes. String beans? Yes. Even if you rejected them as a kid, you will probably revise your opinion once you've sampled them in a chacarero.
Aguilera says he feels blessed to have hired baker Ruben Villaruel. "Word got out in the Chilean community, which is extremely small, that we were opening. One day when I was laying tile in the restaurant's dining room, this guy shows up carrying a basket full of freshly made rolls and classic Chilean-style pastries. He used to be a baker back in Chile, where, as in Paris, every neighborhood must have its beloved bakery. He asks if I needed someone. And, of course, I did."
Now Villaruel arrives early each morning to start the sandwich buns, the pan amasado that comes with every meal and the buttery hallullas sold to go. He then moves on to overstuffed, thin-crusted empanadas and the Euro-influenced Chilean-style desserts displayed in glass cases in the dining room.
Among the goodies is brazo de reina, an egg-rich cake rolled around manjar, the gooey caramelized milk elsewhere known as dulce de leche. The dessert you should not miss (served only weekends) is the Berliner. A cousin of Italian zeppole, the burger bun-shaped, yeast-raised fried pastry — filled either with fluffy custard, fruit jam or manjar — is bliss incarnate.
For all their appeal, chacareros aren't considered a formal meal. And with his clientele largely Chilean, Aguilera noticed that it was the daily specials from cook Rosamel Salas' own repertoire that were flying out the door. A new menu permanently lists many of her prized dishes, such as pollo arvejado, braised chicken flecked with bright green peas swimming in viscous chickeny juices. Her porotos granados, a savory corn and baby lima stew topped with a chunk of fork-tender braised beef completely satisfies the soul.
Chilean cooking may be barely a blip on L.A.'s foodie radar, but little Chilenazo, with its something-for-every-appetite menu and talented team, may soon be changing the landscape.
Location: Chilenazo, 7238 Canoga Ave., Canoga Park, (818) 887-0269, http://www.chilenazo.net.
Price: Sandwiches, $4 to $12; <i>pastel de choclo</i>, $11; entrées with salad, $10 to $14.
Details: Open 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. (or until closing) Tuesdays to Sundays. Lot parking. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol.