With its low self-esteem and high urban blight, Hartford is the ultimate underdog city. Sad City Hartford documents the joys, sorrows and eccentricities of New England's Rising Star.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Hartford Food Guy: Piolin

One night about 5 or 6 years ago my wife and I were going to go to Coyote Flaco on New Britain Avenue. It was raining, however, and we could see from our car that the place was packed and people were waiting outside the door trying to stay out of a light rain by leaning up against the building. There also didn't seem to be any parking close by, which meant we'd have to park up on Mountain or Harvard Streets and walk a bit. As much as we were craving Mexican food, we decided to go elsewhere

As we got to the intersection of New Britain Avenue and Hillside Avenue I saw a giant chick on a sign advertising for something called Piolin. I had driven by it a bunch of times but had never stopped.

Frankly, however, the sign had always intrigued me, as did the fact that the sign said the place served Peruvian food. Although the parking situation was only a little better than at Coyote Flaco, it didn't look quite as crowded, so I convinced Mrs. HFG to give it a try.

That was the first of many trips we made to Piolin, both to eat in and to take out. It was a wonderful little spot, in a gutted house with a simple menu offering broiled chicken, ceviche, and a few other Peruvian specialties. As much as we enjoyed it, however, for some reason it slowly slipped out of our restaurant rotation.

Last night, we decided to get re-acquainted, so we went for a fairly early dinner. When we walked in we were happy to see that, although the place was basically the same, there had clearly been some upgrades. First, the interior had been painted a bright orange/yellow adorned with pictures and what appeared to be evocative of the type of art people native to Peru were producing long before Pizarro and company arrived in 1524. Second, the menu was greatly expanded, with numerous entrees, Peruvian drinks, and even an interesting South American wine list.

My wife decided to start with the ceviche mixto, which consisted of mixed seafood marinated in lemon juice and served with boiled potatoes, sweet potatoes, and red onions. Like any seafood dish, especially a raw seafood dish, ceviche only works if the fish is really fresh, which it was. The tartness of the lemon juice mixed well with the seafood and it was very refreshing. In fact, Mrs. HFG thought it was one of the best plates of ceviche she'd ever had.

For dinner Mrs. HFG had chicharron, which was a plate of fried seafood; squid, fish, and what appeared to be fried, stuffed mussels. It came with salad and fried yucca. Fried seafood is always good (:> x 50) but this plate was particularly good, especially because of the mussels. Mrs. HFG did think, however, that some lemon would have been good and I don't disagree.

I started with an order of anticuchos, which is to say beef heart. I'd had beef heart once before and enjoyed it, though I thought it was a bit salty (Mrs. HFG did not enjoy it, at all). This time, saltiness was not a problem.

Beef heart tastes, perhaps not surprisingly, like any other cut of beef, but the flavor is more intense and the meat is springier, meaning it's pretty chewy. I know it might seem a bit off-putting, but eating beef heart really isn't much different than eating any other part of the animal except for the springy texture.

For dinner, I had the 1/2 broiled chicken, which came with a massive serving of french fries. The french fries weren't that great (they were a bit greasy), but the chicken was very, very good. The skin was cooked to perfection and it, along withe the juicy meat, flaked off the bone. :> x 50. My only criticism was that the chicken tasted a bit salty. The chef probably over-seasoned the chicken just a bit and it did detract a little from the taste. Still, it was very good and those 1/2 chickens (and the whole ones) are reason enough to give Piolin a try.

A word about the portions; they were ENORMOUS. For example, my beef heart "appetizer" consisted of three skewers, each with three large hunks of meat. One would have been sufficient. Two would have been more than enough. Three was too much, even for a ravenous HFG. Then add in a "side" of potatoes and corn and you have gone totally over the edge.

Because of the vast amount of food that appeared on our plates, Mrs. HFG and I barely got through half our food. Happily, our server had everything put in doggy bags in short order and we were good to go.

While our server was friendly and hard-working, the service had problems. My wife's dinner and appetizer arrived simultaneously, with my dinner and appetizer arriving a couple of minutes thereafter. Still, it's hard to complain too much when the food is good (and plentiful).

There was, however, an unexpected upside to the delay in our appetizers, which was we got to enjoy the salsa peruana aji, which is a green sauce into which we were able to dip our complimentary bread. While the bread wasn't great, it didn't need to be, since it was only a platform for the sauce. The sauce is made from the aji chili, lime juice, garlic, black pepper, salt and olive oil. The heat of the chili and the tartness of the lime work very well together.

Total tab, including tip, was just under $65. Now, that might sound like a lot for a neighborhood restaurant, but understand we ended up with about 3.5 meals worth of food; the dinner my wife and I each had at Piolin, my wife's midnight snack last evening, and my lunch today. All in all, a very good bargain, especially considering the quality.

Piolin is a down home ethnic and neighborhood restaurant. It caters, however, not just Peruvians, but to the much larger Hispanic community in Hartford. I have, however, seen Trinity students and perhaps even professors as well, at least during the school year.

Finally, Piolin has expanded, at least sort of, with the proprietors' son having opened his own "Piolyn, Jr." in East Hartford at the intersection of Main Street and Connecticut Boulevard. I haven't been there but if it is anything like its namesake, I would think it has to be pretty good.

I like Piolin. It isn't perfect, but the food is good, it is plentiful, it is interesting, and it is reasonably priced. It's a tough combination to beat.


  1. We go to Piolyn Jr very often - It is a 2 minute drive from our Financial Planning office. - We also ignored it forever until they ran a half off though the Hartford courant a few months back - It has now become one of our regular spots ( 2nd to LEE's ). In fact - every time we go we try something different - and we have yet to have anything other than great dishes.

    Jeffrey Scott Engler, CFP

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