As we approached the Fort Lauderdale's Chimney House, a modern-looking log cabin where Las Olas Boulevard meets a bend of the Avenue of the Arts, we expected American comfort food.
Instead, we were soon digging into a heaping portion of lomo saltado ($12), a classic Peruvian stir-fry of beef sirloin tips with a savory soy-vinegar marinade, tomatoes, red onion, and French fries. The fries were mixed in with the sauce, like a Peruvian poutine, and became even better when mixed with the accompanying dome of steaming white rice.
The 24-seat restaurant was six years in the making when it opened September 12. Colombian-born owners Yaddi and Frank Rodriguez discovered the historic, albeit derelict, building in 2006, when they were new to the area and looking for a place to eat.
Rodriguez wouldn't divulge how much he spent transforming the once-empty shell into the welcoming restaurant it is today. " 'Too much,' a businessperson would say," he joked. "It took us six years to build, and we'll probably need to be open for 15 years to break even." The property is owned by Las Olas Promenade Inc., a Fort Lauderdale-based company headed by Dr. Fred Reineke.
The menu is a fairly priced study of classic Spanish and Latin American dishes, with some oddly composed American items. Such a menu seems possible only in South Florida's melting pot. About a dozen sandwiches are offered for less than $10 each, while main plates are all under $20.
Along with lomo saltado, five ceviches help represent Peru. An enticing ahi tuna prosciutto ($12) was unavailable on two separate visits. We thought we were settling for the octopus "al olivo" ($12), but the lengthwise cuts of tentacles were as tender as any fish and came coated in a rich, vinegary kalamata olive aioli. A fluffy yellow causa, chilled Peruvian mashed potatoes infused with aji amarillo, sat in the center of the plate and struck the perfect balance between garlic and spice.
The husband-and-wife team both come from restaurant families, but little could have prepared them for the odyssey that would one day become the Chimney House. The building sat empty for almost a decade before the new owners took over, first having to get it rezoned for business.
"It was in a state of disarray," Rodriguez says. "There were homeless people living inside, no parking lot... There was no sewer system onsite." On top of that, they had to cut through rolls of government red tape.
"We put bike racks out and had to wait for the parks department to review" them, he added. If you live nearby, we'd advise riding your bike, because there are only a half-dozen parking spots in an adjacent lot.
The restaurant revolves around a squat, red-brick fireplace in the middle of a hardwood-floored dining room. Spiraling white bricks reach from the hearth up to the ceiling and connect to the namesake chimney on the roof. The setup is flanked by a gray granite countertop that made it feel less like a restaurant and more like someone's home kitchen. Behind the counter are wine racks, a prep station, and a stainless-steel espresso machine. A combination of modern-style paintings and black-and-white photos of native Central Americans hang from blue and beige walls.
Rodriguez says he was looking to re-create the memory of a restaurant in Queens, where the best of Latin American cuisines was up for grabs. With the Rodriguezes' direction, the kitchen is staffed by a Peruvian, a Guatemalan, and an Uruguayan.
A short list of appetizers includes the ubiquitous tortilla española ($4). A wedge of the potato omelet arrived warmed, made of thick, stacked potato slices and thin films of cheese. A bowl of about a dozen mussels ($12) came in a rich broth of olive oil, onion, and white wine with bits of cilantro and chorizo. Despite the smoky, rich broth, accompanied by four slices of Cuban bread brushed with butter and garlic, many of the mussels were so small that we'd hesitate to order them again.
Although inside feels like home, the tables on the porch and at street level, surrounded by a white picket fence, are where you want to be. On one visit, we were surrounded by several couples chatting in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French, all while refilling their glasses with red sangria from bright pitchers. A word of warning: The restaurant sits at the intersection of two major roads, and the occasional jacked-up pickup truck or motorcycle with eardrum-piercing exhausts will blow by.
Meanwhile, our predictions for American comfort food here weren't totally off-base, but it came with Latin American spin. There was a "Chimney House Burger" ($12), topped with queso blanco, caramelized onions, and a fried egg. A side of fries came with huancaina sauce, a Peruvian staple made of queso blanco, oil, Peruvian yellow peppers, and evaporated milk. The "Chimney House Meatloaf" ($10) was advertised as "mom's special recipe" and seemed so out of place that we had to try it.
The protein here is turkey meat, Rodriguez told us later by phone. The meat is ground with green onions, raisins, and green olives; formed into a loaf; sliced; and served alongside a chunky potato salad with green beans, corn, and peas bound with a bit of mayonnaise. The precise angles of each slice gave it a processed look. Flavors weren't uniform throughout the dish. Some bites were dry and bland, others juicy with sweet-salty flavor from the raisins and olives.
Cubans get the short end of the stick here. The Sandwich de Pernil ($8) came pressed with Swiss cheese and caramelized onions, but the sandwich was mostly dry. Flan ($3.50) looked enough like the classic Cuban dessert but had a bitter aftertaste that made it inedible.
Though there are some inconsistencies in the menu, the Rodriguezes have accomplished what they set out to do.
"We're focused on being the neighborhood restaurant for the west side of town," Frank says. "Our food, our pricing is based on it being casual and nice. We want people to come in once or twice a week."
All of that served in a cozy setting makes the Chimney House the perfect place for a quiet date, or a family dinner.