April 13, 2012

The Gluten-Free Menu at Aji Latin American Restaurant in Boulder

By Evan Sandsmark -  

We’ve reviewed a lot of gluten-free restaurants in and around Boulder, and today we went to one of the best we’ve ever visited: Aji Latin American Restaurant. It was a pleasure to dine there for lunch on a recent afternoon, but it was actually a little stressful because the whole time we were desperately trying to note all of what makes Aji great. (Aji has much more going for it than their excellent, well-organized gluten-free menu.) We strongly recommend Aji to our readers, gluten intolerant or otherwise.

Aji is located on the northeast corner of 16th and Pearl, a couple of storefronts west of Snooze, the Boulder “A.M. Eatery” (also a great restaurant). Aji is right on the street corner, so it has two walls of nearly floor-to-ceiling windows that look onto Pearl Street and 16th Street. In addition to providing excellent views of all the action happening on Pearl Street, the windows allow lots of light into the restaurant during the day, which is when we ate there. All of this light will allow you to appreciate the colorful interior of Aji, which does, as the restaurant’s name implies, have a Latin American feel (although the interior, with its nice tile floor and immaculate table tops set with glasses and silverware, is considerably nicer than most of the places we’ve dined in Latin America).

While Aji is clearly a restaurant, it is also a bar and a lounge (of sorts). The former is expected – most Pearl Street restaurants worth their salt have strong drink on hand – but the lounge, consisting of a few couches and large chairs arranged around a couple of coffee tables, is unique among restaurants we’ve visited, which is a little strange because it seems like a really great idea that other eateries would have adopted. You can eat and grab a drink, just as you can at most restaurants on Pearl Street, but at Aji you can take your meal while laying on a couch (at least in principle – the lounge is probably best suited for drinks with a few friends, not solo meals that you eat while laying prostrate).

We visited the restaurant during a slow hour – toward the end of lunch, but before happy hour – so we decided to eat in the bar instead of getting a table in the dining room. This is all essentially the same area, however, because nothing really separates the bar (or lounge) from the rest of the restaurant. Upon sitting down, we were given a regular menu, so we thought we had to interrogate the server (or bartender, in our case) about the GF options. Happily, when we asked about the gluten-free items, we were brought an entirely separate menu.

As far as gluten-free menus go, this is as good as it gets because it is exactly like the regular menu, but it explains what is required to make a dish gluten-free (and even says if an item can’t be made gluten-free). A few items are entirely gluten-free by default, and several others can be made gluten-free with a small modification (e.g., removing croutons from the Caesar Salad). A good portion of the rest of the menu items, including dishes like Huevos Rancheros and Chiles en Nogada, are somewhere in between and are marked by an asterisk that sends you to this footnote: “Contains ingredients that have been fried in the presence of gluten.” In most cases, what this means is that the dish contains corn tortillas which are cooked in a frier that is used for foods that contain gluten. Obviously, when corn tortillas are cooked in this way, cross-contamination is possible (inevitable, really), so avoid these items if you can’t ingest even trace amounts of gluten. The empanadas are the only items on the entire lunch menu that can’t be made gluten-free. (The empanadas are also the only dishes on the dinner menu that can’t be made gluten-free, according to our server.)

As impressed as we were with Aji’s extensive gluten-free menu, it doesn’t capture the full range of options available because customers in Aji can also order items off the Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant menu. The two restaurants are right next to each other and share an owner (and restrooms). Leaf also has a number of gluten-free options, and everything on Leaf’s menu is vegetarian. Aji is therefore a perfect place for anybody with dietary restrictions, or even multiple dietary restrictions. (For the record, you can’t order items from Aji when you are in Leaf because Leaf’s kitchen is a certified vegetarian operation. So, the full range of gluten-free options can only be had if you are eating in Aji.)

With so many options available, we had some difficulty arriving at a good choice, but we finally settled on the chilaquiles, which is one of the most popular items on Aji’s menu. Because fried corn tortillas are involved, this is one of the dishes that has “ingredients that have been fried in the presence of gluten,” as our server was sure to point out. (He was a really helpful guy, answering all our questions in startling detail. Little did he know that he was talking about the intricacies of gluten-free dining to someone with a particularly receptive ear.) It was a superb plate, well-presented and perfectly cooked.

Chilaquiles is a traditional Mexican dish that is similar to nachos, although you generally eat chilaquiles with silverware. The base is made with fried corn tortillas, and any number of other ingredients might be thrown on top. The entire dish is then covered in some salsa or other sauce. Not surprisingly, our chilaquiles fit this description. The foundation of our dish was the corn tortillas, which Aji fried perfectly. They were pliable, able to be bent and even cut in half without shattering apart, but they were also firm and almost crispy. Basically, the corn tortillas possessed two contradictory textures at the same time, which was great. With the corn tortillas, you can have your crunch and cut them too. Moreover, the texture remained constant during the course of eating, so even though our entire dish was covered with a red chili sauce, no bite was soggy.

On top of the fried tortillas was shredded chicken, summer squash, zucchini, and melted asadero cheese, and off to the side were two scrambled eggs. This may sound like a bizarre combination, and we guess it kind of is, but everything went very well together, in part because the chili sauce served as a common taste, unifying the disparate ingredients and fitting them into a controlled spectrum of flavor. Although the dish is mildly spicy to begin with, our server brought us two bottles of hot sauce, the “Osito Red Hot Sauce” and the “Tomatillo Lime Hot Sauce,” which were red and green, respectfully. We extensively sampled each, using the eggs as a vehicle for flavor, and both were excellent, adding an extra dimension of flavor to the dish, not just an amplified level of spice. The chilaquiles was delicious, one of the best Latin American meals we’ve had in many months, as good as (but of course distinct from) the exceptional enchiladas we had at Centro.

As far as we’re concerned, Aji is about as good as it gets when it comes to gluten-free dining. They have a separate GF menu that clearly explains all of your options, and a knowledgeable and friendly staff can help answer any additional questions you might have. There are also tons of vegetarian options available thanks to Leaf’s menu (and Aji’s, for that matter, because Aji has several vegetarian dishes as well.) The atmosphere inside the restaurant, which is centrally located, is pleasant and relaxed, and of course they serve great food. What’s not to like?

You can find Aji’s menus here:

The Menu’s of Aji

Unfortunately, the gluten-free menu we’re so fond of isn’t online, but, again, almost everything on the menu can be made gluten-free, so keep that in mind as you look over the options listed.

Note: Many of the places we visit merely offer gluten-free options, and hence are not necessarily 100% gluten-free facilities, so if proximal cross-contamination is an issue, call ahead. If you would like us to review a particular restaurant with gluten-free options, send an email to info@glutenfreeinboulder.com. We’ll try our best to check it out!

Read Next Article » Following Success, Leaf Hosts Another Raw, Vegan, Gluten-Free Dinner
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