I made a remarkable observation during my first meal at Don Alex Restaurant on Route 27 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. I'll call it "Yarvin's First Law of Restaurant Selection."
"The worse the television program playing in a restaurant, the better the food will be." In other words, if you walk into a place and everybody's watching BBC Shakespeare, PBS American Experience, or even the first season of Mary Tyler Moore, you should leave without a second thought. Korean soap operas, costumed Chinese variety shows, and South American historical comedies on the tube pretty much assure a great meal—and that was exactly what happened at Don Alex.
As my wife and I worked on our mixed grill, the awfulness of what was on the tube served reminded us of the greatness on our plates.
Don Alex serves the cuisine of Peru. There are dishes that you'd expect—a mixed grill for example—and some real surprises, like Salchipapas, French fries tossed with pieces of hot dog. Papa a la Huancaina, boiled potatoes with cheese sauce, and Chica Morada, translated on the menu as "Peruvian Purple Drink." And in the evening, there's that blaring television; a South American historical comedy—gaudy costumes and all—to remind you that you're in the right place.
Don Alex has two New Jersey locations; one about forty feet from the other with a computer repair shop in between. Either one is fine and both have the same menu. There, you can get classics like those salchipapas, Pancita (pork belly), and even Mixto Anticucho, a sort of belly combo plate with cow belly, pork belly, Peruvian shish kabab, potatoes, and corn.
Don't be afraid to bring along your less adventurous friends though. An order of roast chicken with fries and salad, broiled trout, or grilled pork chops should satisfy them and there are enough salads and vegetable sides to keep a vegetarian from jumping ship. Indeed a finicky kid who'll only eat hot dogs and fries might go for my Don Alex favorite: Salchipapas, thin slices of fried hot dog over a bed of French fries with a bit of salad on the side.
Peruvian cuisine uses corn in unexpected ways. First there's that "Purple Drink" made from purple corn and served by the pitcher. When I first saw it, I was hoping it was alcoholic. Despite my disappointment, I wound up loving the stuff and completely understanding why most of Peru does too. Corn also shows up in desserts. Mazamorra Morada is made from purple corn and Humitas from sweet corn. None have ever been available any time I've visited, but I'm assured that it's only my bad luck and that they have it most of the time.
One other thing I haven't yet been able to do is go on a weekend. A long list of specials including Pachamanca, Patasca, Chanfainita, (all famous and elaborate Peruvian meat dishes) and large meal-sized bowls of seafood and meat soups are available then. I never seem to make it to Elizabeth on a weekend though. Still, I'll take a mixed grill, a plate of Salchipapas, or Bisteck Encebollado any day of the week. And Don Alex is happy to oblige.
Don Alex Restaurant
352 and 356 Rahway Avenue, Elizabeth NJ 07202 (map)
Open Sunday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to midnight. Don Alex also has locations in Jackson Heights and Corona Queens.