One of my favorite contrasts in Lima thus far relates to the physical appearance of certain places, especially in terms of restaurants. You have places that often seem, at best, a step above your average, well-loved diner; they are often smaller, less flashy, and tend toward a mom n’ pop look (as in, somebody’s mom n’pop did the decorating). Then, at the complete opposite end of the spectrum, you have restaurants that could be something between a five-star hotel and a palace.
Example: Ivo has been telling me since we arrived about this ceviche place. It is, apparently, THE BEST ceviche place in Lima. Coming from a Peruvian with standards like his, this is extremely high praise. However, since the place is located just outside the football stadium in La Victoria (one of those “just don’t stay after dark” locations), we only recently got around to visiting.
El Verídico de Fidel, which I’ll translate momentarily, is owned by– go figure–a guy named Fidel. Fidel and his brother got started by selling ceviche, leche de tigre, and chicha off a small cart of questionable legality parked outside the nearby stadium. After some steady advance to a cart of a more respectable nature, the brothers got their first big break: A famous Spanish sports commentator happened to try their leche de tigre, and was subsequently and very fortunately filmed exclaiming that it was “the real deal!” That is a rough translation of the Spanish exclamation, “el verídico.” Hence the name.
After this, as well as an ensuing visit from a famous Peruvian chef who featured their leche de tigre on his show, the restaurant’s reputation was sealed. It therefore goes without saying that the first thing we tried upon visiting… was the leche de tigre.
Wow. First, know this: Leche de tigre is cold. It is something between a soup and a drink. It translates to “milk of the tiger,” is often jokingly referred to as an aphrodisiac, and if made by El Verídico de Fidel, it is absolutely incredible. You can see that the bowl is loaded with goodies: an oyster, a shrimp, chunks of beautiful ceviche-style white fish, choclo (Peruvian corn), a chunk of sweet potato, thin slivers of sweet onion, celery leaves, and the smoky fried kernels of another Peruvian corn. The creamy soup part is a cool, milky combination of that gorgeous Peruvian lime juice and–optionally–spices from the Peruvian ají pepper. I couldn’t handle the pepper, so mine was slightly comparable to Boston clam chowder; in comparison, Ivo’s was hot enough to melt cement.
The leche de tigre we ate here was a beautiful, complex dish that, despite its fantastic quality, I could not finish– it was too rich, and too totally different from anything I’d had before, especially because it was cold. However, it seems like the Peruvians have been sucking this stuff down since they were born. Evidence of this was literally seated across from us, where a delighted baby squealed in Spanish every time her sister spooned some into her mouth.
The only other dish we ordered (and the only other thing we could possibly eat) provided a refreshing foil to the rich leche de tigre. The name of the dish, pescado sudado, cleverly translates to “sweating fish.” Ivo says it is easily made by letting the fish “sweat” inside the hot broth. This light fish soup had a soothing vegetable broth that was surprisingly non-fishy. If anything, I would think it was just the best simple vegetable soup I’d ever had.
Now, to complete the example, consider La Rosa Náutica, an equally well known restaurant just a few minutes away from us in Miraflores. Though not necessarily less “traditional” (it has been around since the 1980s), it creates a very different impression from that of the casual, cafeteria-style set up inside El Verídico de Fidel. Where El Verídico is an image of practicality, Rosa Náutica is a vision of luxury. During the evenings, it reflects all of its glittering lights off the ocean on which it sits.
La Rosa Náutica is described as “una rosa floreció en el medio del mar.” In English, the “Nautical Rose” is “a rose that has bloomed in the middle of the sea.” The description seems appropriate, despite the blues and whites of the stilted structure. You must first pass a gazebo with delicate, lacy woodwork lining its edges, and then several small shops decorated in a similar manner, before the dock “blooms” into the restaurant and bar area.
The further out you walk, the more you can feel the waves knocking against the stilts below. Like I’ve noted before, the ocean here is no lake; the waves make themselves known. Honestly though, this makes the experience all the more exciting. Once we found a window-side seat in the bar, we were able to drink our pisco sours while watching the ocean do its best to swallow the building.
Ultimately, the reason that the contrast between these traditional restaurants is so fun to dissect is simply because of what they always share. Regardless of where they fall on the spectrum, each one is impressive on many levels. These places stay open for decades because they have the whole package: food that has been eaten for centuries because it’s delicious, service that reflects a pride in the business, and a defined personality that has been forged with the hard work of dedicated owners.