In a city the size of Lima, it doesn’t seem like every single person should immediately recognize let alone have eaten at a single restaurant. That is, however, exactly the case whenever you mention “La Canta Rana,” which translates to “The Singing Frog.”
La Canta Rana is not a glittering, four story, hotel-related or otherwise upscale dining location. Rather, it is situated in an older building where the paint job is fresh but the walls are crumbling, and the inside has been decorated by multiple people who approached the job with nothing much more than some nails and a passion for sports. The doors stay open to compensate for the absent air conditioning, and gnats circle above the heads of patrons as result, fortunately hovering mostly where a second floor should logically be installed.
However, while these photos of La Canta Rana are useful, they are inaccurate in one sense: When Ivo and I went on a slow Thursday afternoon for lunch, the restaurant was already packed with a line out the door. It turns out that the walls of this little restaurant have been covered with sports paraphernalia only over the course its lifetime of some 30 years, during which its food has allowed its originally Uruguayan owners to earn both their keep and the right to continue serving some of the best ceviche in town.
“Ceviche” is a traditional Peruvian dish created, in essence, by “cooking” raw fish in the acidic juice of Peruvian limes, which has usually been spiced using several varieties of peppers. La Canta Rana is one of the best of –I would estimate–hundreds of “cevicherías” throughout Lima.
We started off with two mugfuls of chicha morrada, a cold juice that gets its color from the purple Peruvian corn used to make it. The people here have been drinking this stuff since the Incans were in charge, and Ivo claims the chicha morada from La Canta Rana is especially good. Since it is made by boiling the purple corn with pineapple, cinnamon, clove, and sugar, the result is a slightly sweet, slightly fruity drink that leaves a burst of cinnamon in your nose.
The ceviche from La Canta Rana was excellent. Restaurants this size and style do not thrive for three decades on atmosphere alone. This dish is so brilliant: It is deceivingly simple, just white fish with lime juice, onion, and spices, with sweet potato and choclo (a giant corn variety) to the side. But you have to understand that even familiar ingredients here have a slightly different taste: Peruvian limes are tiny and round, and have no bitterness at all; they are purely and beautifully acidic. The onions here used for ceviche also have no bite; rather than making you tear up, the taste is almost sweet. The pepper used is honest, pure heat. When everything is combined, the juices of the lime and onion enhance the taste of everything else, and the thick white fish chunks soak it all up. I had tried ceviche with Ivo while still living in Miami, Florida, and it was certainly good there, but I have to admit, all the claims that “It’s better from Peru” appear to be true.
Finally, accompanying the ceviche was a dish that I had not tried before. Yes, the photo you see below is downright flattering: You are looking at pulpo al olivo, a dish created primarily from octopus (pulpo) and blended olives (olivos). If you feel apprehensive looking at a mound of purple goop sprouting tentacles, I assure you, the lovely chunk of lettuce and attempt at green garnish did nothing to make it look more appetizing in person. However, I have to admit… it was delicious as well. Potent, yes– the olives were a powerful dark variety–but the lime and the bread lightened the overall taste up enough that you could enjoy the octopus itself, which worked in perfect conjunction with the sauce.
Though I’ve heard mixed reviews about the desserts since our visit, at the time Ivo insisted we grab dessert elsewhere (the food, he claims, is the real attraction). After two heaping platefuls of seafood though, I was too full anyway. Ivo has said several times, “If it’s not a giant serving, then it’s not really Peruvian food.” La Canta Rana evidently therefore meets all the qualifications for a great traditional Peruvian cevichería, from the quality to the generosity to the atmosphere. Despite the number of new places I still want to visit, this is one restaurant I actually hope to enjoy again.