A good pastel de choclo is magnificent to see, an enormous concoction, bubbling in its earthenware vessel, browned and smoking and yellow as a van Gogh sunflower beneath its fragile, sugary crust. When you plunge a spoon into the mass, an almost volcanic burst of buttery vapor issues from its depths, and the fissure reveals a thick layer of grated sweet corn gently flavored with basil. At the base is a mild stew of beef and chicken, eggs and olives. You can find pastel de choclo almost anywhere in South America, but it is more or less the national dish of Chile, and the great specialty of El Parron, a fragrant Chilean grill in Van Nuys. El Parron’s pastel de choclo would seem to be big enough to feed a party of six with leftovers for lunch the next day, but there is rarely enough to pack in a box to take home. To an aspiring trencherman, it is a mountain to be climbed, a sea to be crossed, high-quality protein and carbs enough to power a champion through a triathlon.
El Parron is a funny kind of place, a compact dining room that somehow converts into a nightclub a few times a week, with a smattering of folk paintings on the walls, a crowded bakery case, and a mounted television set that twice last week was playing a concert video of Liza Minnelli and Charles Aznavour, the French Dean Martin, whose relationship to Chilean culture is fairly vague. Half of the chairs in the dining room are engraved with the House of Blues logo. Two dishes out of three seem to come with a salad of tomato and thinly sliced onion on the side. The waitresses are such cheerleaders for the cuisine that you half expect them to break into a song praising the empanadas or the puffingly huge parrillada combinations.
“Do you know how we like to eat bread in Chile?” the manager asks, gesturing toward a plate of hot rolls. “First we split it open, we put some butter inside, and then we put the bread back together. The butter melts!”
The rolls are delicious with melted butter, although they are even better with a spoonful or two of the house pebre, a Chilean relish made with tomatoes, onions and oregano that is suitable for dressing up almost everything at the restaurant but ice cream. The mini-empanadas are good too, flaky little things filled with meat, fish or a strangely soothing combination of melted cheese and shrimp.
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With its long coastline and cold waters nourished by the Humboldt Current, Chile is famous for the variety and high quality of its seafood, for the shellfish, exotic fish species and wriggling cephalopods that find their way into trawler nets. The giant sea urchins, erizos, are considered among the best in the world. El Parron fancies itself a seafood house, but the Chilean seafood available here is pretty limited — a few dishes involving congrio, a delicate fish that is tastier deep fried than grilled or stewed; a salad of the (canned) Chilean abalone locos sliced and served with artichoke hearts and a sort of Thousand Island dressing, and another salad of curly sea snails piled high on a mayonnaise-drenched avocado.
You may not have contemplated the line of Chilean sandwiches called completos, mannerist constructions that may include hot dogs, mayonnaise and squishy avocado layered into warm, crunchy rolls, the Southern Hemisphere equivalent of the coney or the Pink’s dog, and arguably one of the great hot-dog dishes of the world, even when it is served with tomatoes and Chilean sauerkraut instead.
If you are exceedingly hungry, there is the pernil, a gargantuan slab of pork leg that arrives at the table looking like nothing less than the slices of tree that Chinese cooks sometime use as a cutting board — whatever flavor you get from the roasted pig will probably come from the pebre you dress it with, but you can’t argue with the portion size. Smaller bits of pork are spiced, wrapped in pigskin and cooked as a roulade — the slippery gelatinousness of the pigskin is appealing, although the stuffing tends to be a bit dry. In South America, the best-known Chilean dish is probably bistec a lo pobre, a grilled steak topped with onions and a couple of gooey-yolked fried eggs, but this may not be the best dish to get at El Parron — instead go for the stews. The vivid-orange succotash called porotos is lima beans, squash, corn and onions cooked down into a dense, sweet mass, and there is a lovely beef cazuela, the vegetable-rich Chilean equivalent of a Mexican cocido, a perfect light lunch on a chilly afternoon.
El Parron Chilean Grill, 6620 Van Nuys Blvd., Van Nuys, (818) 988-1226. Mon.–Thurs., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m.–11 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Entertainment on weekends. Beer and wine. Lot parking in rear. AE, MC, V. Weekday buffet lunch. Dinner for two, food only, $25–$45. Recommended dishes: empanadas, pastel de choclo, porotos, cazuela.