The atmosphere is late-20th-century American fast-food joint, with bright yellow walls, fire-engine red tables and a lonely counter with a cash register for takeout orders. The 21st century is represented by a flat-screen TV, mounted high on the wall, tuned to a soccer match or a Spanish soap opera.
For the lover of street food, taquerías, pupuserías or authentic ethnic eateries of any stripe, the unpromising nature of the room is in itself promising - hinting the focus is on the food, not wasted on decor. In the best of all possible worlds, Fiesta 38 would be the fabulous pan-South American restaurant I'd obsess over.
But no matter how much I wanted to like Fiesta 38, each time I visited, I would leave having to admit that the food wasn't very exciting. I blamed myself. "I probably ordered the wrong thing," I'd think. I tried sandwiches and chop bowls and the grilled chicken platter. And, admittedly, I have not yet run out of items to order.
The best item I've ordered at Fiesta 38 is the Sautee sandwich, slices of tender beef layered with tomato, cilantro, purple onions and tiny potato sticks, crowned with a fried egg and served in a homemade roll. The beef had real grill flavor and the egg gave the sandwich some depth.
But the Chicha-ron sandwich, slow-roasted pork chunks topped with fried sweet potato, was salty and dry, even mealy from the sweet potato. My tablemate objected to the Mexican grilled chicken sandwich's skin-on chicken - and the presence of a bone. (Also, onion-haters take note: Purple onions arrive on almost everything whether the menu says so or not.)
The flame-grilled chicken is "marinated overnight in South American spices, craft beer and citrus juice." It tastes like grilled chicken - a grilled chicken you would be happy to encounter at a barbecue, but grilled chicken nonetheless.
For side dishes, the tamale was overtaken by bitter pepper seasoning and large chunks of dry pork, and was not something I wanted to finish. Arepas were round and flat, crunchy on the outside with a heavy, slightly sweet corn pudding on the inside. The arepa improved with a dip in the cilantro sauce, but the corn flavor never really overcame the sensation of the grease, and finishing both patties seemed ill-advised.
The chop bowls, meat served on rice with a side sauce, seem to be the most popular item at Fiesta 38. (Vegetarians have one meatless chop bowl dedicated to them.) The tapadito, the chop that comes with ground sirloin, was best where the fried egg that tops it had dripped marvelous yolk down onto the meat and rice. Otherwise, it was bland, like a deconstructed 1960s casserole, right down to the small cubes of peas and kernels of corn. The raisins and olives that should have brightened it up (and made it more like a deconstructed empanada) were in too short supply.
The addition of Fiesta 38's terrific citrusy cilantro sauce or the Peruvian huacatay sauce would have done wonders here, but I wasn't given any (this was a takeout order). When eating in, I've been given three sauces: cilantro, the huacatay and a hot chile de arbol.
The Peruvian chop bowl comes with a chopped chicken breast (boneless and skinless this time) on rich cilantro rice, dotted with peas and carrots, moist but too salty. On the other hand, one of my meal-mates liked this quite a bit.
Most of what I've eaten at Fiesta 38 has been acceptable and inexpensive. And its cilantro and huacatay sauces are so good, they could save almost any dish. If you do order wisely, you can build yourself a pretty good meal.