[UPDATE: It appears the name has quietly changed from "Las Llaves de Chile" to "La Roja de Todos" at some point]
When you get past the tasty sandwiches, empanadas, and hot dogs, Chilean food is usually difficult to love for those of worldly tastes and complex palates. The meals I have had, even during two trips to the country, were mainly bland and disappointing. In Santiago, the food scene is decent, but most points north and south seem to have severe taste shortages.
Las Llaves de Chile looks to change these perceptions in the far northeast corner of Corona, Queens. Just off of Northern Boulevard, a whole array of baked goods and desserts greets patrons as they enter the restaurant. The woman who runs the show here proudly explained that it was all made in house.
Before orders start arriving, an oversized homemade hallulla (below) is dropped for the hungriest amongst the group.
To make sure the table saw edible food come out, we stuck to the well worn classics of Chilean cuisine, starting with an empanada de pino ($4, below). These large vessels come both sweet and savory, with a taste very distinct from any other. The savory beef and onion mixture also has a black olive and hard boiled egg, while the sweetness is added by raisins.
The most well-known item from Chile might be the completo ($4, below), a hot dog topped with tomato, avocado, sauerkraut (there has been a lot of German immigration to Chile decades ago), and mayo. While this certainly qualifies for a guilty pleasure, don't knock it until you try it.
My last pastel de choclo ($13, below) in West New York, NJ was very disappointing, but as it is almost considered a national dish, it was a must order. Thankfully it is delicious here, and immediately made us even more excited about the rest of the meal.
Hidden beneath a burnt and crispy (in a good way) top layer is a savory corn and chicken casserole that also includes onions, raisins, and olives. The meat has all been taken off the bone, making this very easy to eat. Like the empanada, it combines elements of sweet and savory. Without the meat, it could almost be eaten as a dessert.
Recommended to us from some Chileans that had already dined here was the paila marina ($15, below), a seafood soup that comes with mussels ringing the edge. Within the great fishy broth are also clams, shrimp, scallops, and a couple filets of fish at the bottom. Squirt some lemon as desired and enjoy, this was definitely a favorite.
Rounding out the main courses for the evening was the costillar de cerdo al horno ($15, below), baked pork spare ribs that say "spectacular!!!" on the menu. Removing the meat can almost be done with wind, as the bones slip right off. The seasonings and crispy skin make for a really enjoyable plate.
With so many good vibes, I could not resist taking a chacarero ($7, below) home, that very typical Chilean beef sandwich. What makes it most unique, and quite colorful, is the use of string beans as well as fresh tomatoes. Once again the homemade bread is very complimentary.
We all decided that we had not had enough and ordered two chilenitos ($2 each, below), one with and one without coconut. The dulce de leche inside is wonderful, while the cracker is forgettable. The coconut actually serves a great purpose in hiding the dryness of the cracker, and is the recommended snack for after your meal.
It is very good news to report the raising of standards for Chilean food here in New York City. Let's hope Las Llaves sticks around for a while.