I’ve been to over 15 major cities in about 8 different countries. I have eaten copious amounts of food in every single one. Shameless as this admission is, one of the things that excites me most about travel is eating; if I don’t get to try something new or uniquely prepared for an extended period of time, claustrophobia sets in.
All this, and I’m telling you, fervently, passionately, without a moment’s hesitation: The BEST food scene I have experienced is in Lima, Peru.
The range is incredible: Straight-up Peruvian food, which originates from the jungle, desert, and sea, has been blended with the cuisine of Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, and German immigrants. It is complex, both delightfully foreign and comfortingly familiar. The vegetables are fresh, the fruit is free-flowing, the wine is rich, and the beef is phenomenal.
Therefore, for obvious reasons, while the full Federle family was in Lima… suffice it to say that we visited a lot of restaurants.
In the States, we have Chinese food. In Peru, they have Chaufa. Years of late-night binging on our local Casual Chinese takeout indicates to me that there is a slightly discernable difference between our Chinese food and Chaufa. However, Madam Tusan, a new restaurant in Lima, is really in a class of her own.
Although the restaurant looks small on the outside, the inside feels grand and vast; the red dragon threading through the windows complements the atmosphere.
The decor, though, has nothing on the food itself. Fried rice is tossed with garden veggies and then blanketed in fried egg. The sauces are naturally sweet, often with touches of Peruvian fruits. The duck is crispy, the chicken is juicy, and the wantons are devastating– if nobody was around to judge me, I might just make a meal of the wantons alone. This would be possible too, since one of their brilliantly simple desserts are chocolate-stuffed wantons served with a sweet honey sauce.
Although Ivo and I have visited Edo Sushi several times before (or rather, BECAUSE we have visited it before), it was another must-visit for the family. I have adventurous sisters and a brave dad, but I think Chris and Dad in particular were having some second thoughts about agreeing to sushi before we even walked in the door.
These were apparently dispelled quite rapidly though, because every dish they brought out was inhaled. That included the dessert, which this time offered a return of the sundae “sushi” (fried bananas drizzled in chocolate with a pile of vanilla ice cream) and gorgeous fried chocolate ice cream drizzled in strawberry sauce.
FROM THE COAST
Although Peruvian food ranges far and wide, there are several ever-present classics. At Segunda Muelle, we ordered a few of these to be sure all the Federle’s got to try them at least once.
Some of the classics that I’ve learned to recognize (and love) include the ever-present roasted corn kernels, which are served as both an appetizer and alongside ceviche to add some salt and smokiness to the lime; the sweet purple drink called chicha morada; and of course, ceviche itself. The ceviche, a dish of raw white fish “cooked” by the cold acidic juice of Peruvian limes, is usually served with a hunk of boiled sweet potato.
Admittedly, although this restaurant served as an effective “Introduction to Peruvian Food” course, I didn’t feel it could really compete with some of the others we visited. That’s not to say the food wasn’t good– the bottom line is just that there is so much good food in Lima, it has to be great to rise to the top.
POLLO A LA BRASA
Especially if you go out shopping, expect to experience the smoky scent of juicy chickens spinning slowly over an open charcoal fire. They are slow-roasted after marinating in a blend of Peruvian spices, which drips into the open flames as they turn. This method of cooking the chicken was thought up by a Swiss man living in Peru in the 1950s; the legend goes that he had to shut down his hotel, but still had a few thousand chickens to get rid of. He experimented until coming up with Pollo a la Brasa, which he went on to sell out of, both regaining his fortune and giving Peru a brand new dish.
Although this was originally for the wealthy only, it is now standard-fare and hugely popular “fast food”. Ivo and I opted to introduce the family to it with Pardo’s version, which comes with gorgeous yellow potato french fries. Usually it’s accompanied as well by an Inca Kola, which tastes a little like drinking cotton candy- it’s delicious and refreshing even though you can almost feel it giving you diabetes. The soda is a point of national pride in Peru, so the girls had to try it too.
People in the States, we think we own barbecue. And yes, we do make a mean steak, and yes, I’ve seen men throw back more burgers and beer in a night than should be humanly possible in a week. But I’m telling you, from a place of deep love, Peru might just have us beat on this front.
Their barbecues are all about MEAT. Sometimes there are these subtle spicy oil-based “dips” for the meat, but otherwise… no buns, no lettuce, no condiments, minimal attention paid to the salad and fries (which are usually the only sides): just MEAT. And what a phenomenal range too: regular red sausages, which are spicy and crisp on the outside; blood sausages (yup, it’s what you think), which have this incredibly rich, complex filling of ground onions, pork, and spices; chicken that could hold its own if served alone, but which mostly gets ignored because of its company; steak that is so juicy and soft you could almost cut it with a fork; anticucho, or cow heart, which looks deceivingly like steak kabobs and is heavily spiced… all of it lovingly marinated and slow-cooked in stone ovens, unique cauldron-type apparatuses over hot coals, or a giant, open grill.
Los Altos de Mamacona, a beautiful outdoor restaurant that one of Ivo’s friends was kind enough to share with us, specializes in this kind of barbecue. When you order, you don’t pick one kind of meat. Instead, at least two pieces of everything are piled onto a miniature grill and brought straight to the table. While this is not unique in Peru, the quality was especially high here.
Although the video is in Spanish, you can guess what they are quite accurately stating: This place is beautiful, and our food is delicious.
Complementing the food was the fresh air of the mountains, live traditional music, and a small corral of horses relaxing between shows. As usual, Alyssa got along well with the ponies.
With some gentle persuading, Dad and I said hello too.
Not only is the food itself wildly varied, but the places where you can find the best food tend to range as well. The Perroquet restaurant, located in the Country Club Lima Hotel, is decidedly at the high end of the scale. For four years, it has been rated as the best hotel restaurant in Lima. It is also widely acknowledged as not only one of the best places to eat, but also as one of the best places to be seen eating.
After you walk up the red carpet pouring out of the central doors, you turn left through the marble lobby and reach the restaurant. The night we visited, it was blissfully deserted, allowing us to grab a quiet outdoor table on a nice evening.
Here, we sort of… accidentally ordered dinner. Although we originally came only for an evening Pisco Sour, the menu just overwhelmed us. Before we knew it, several more classic Peruvian dishes were steaming on the table.
One of my two personal favorites is the ahi de gallina, which is pulled chicken smothered in a wonderful, thick, slightly hot Peruvian sauce. The sauce is based in the ahi pepper, which is a critical tool in nearly all Peruvian cooking. I can only describe it as vaguely reminiscent of a hot, spicy cheese sauce; however, since it is actually based on a pepper, it tastes lighter, without the heaviness of too much dairy. It is traditionally served with a boiled egg and a black olive or two.
My second favorite is the lomo saltado. Now, I am a die-hard fajita fan. However, in a city that to my complete befuddlement has no Mexican food, this is the only thing that can come close. It is a lot like a deconstructed fajita, with strips or chunks of juicy steak cooked alongside onions and bell peppers in a juicy marinade of more Peruvian spices. Traditionally, it is piled on top of the fries or rice, but the Perroquet opted for a slightly more elegant presentation.
Regarding the dessert, let me briefly preface the description with, “It was not my fault. The waiter recommended it and nobody was monitoring me when the guy asked what we’d like for dessert.” Long story short, I sort of accidentally also ordered a platter of lucuma-based treats… which, I would like to emphasize, were absolutely delightful. Lucuma is this gorgeous, soft-fleshed fruit that is unique to Peru. It has a distinct taste; it is very mild, with just a touch of sweetness. Blend it with any form of dairy though–milk, chocolate, pudding, cream–and you have yourself a delicately flavored but dense dessert.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, far removed from all the sparkle and polish of the Country Club, we also made a stop by Sarita. This tiny, middle-of-nowhere shop was technically located just outside of Lima, along the road on our drive to our second destination. Among the four or five small cluster of food stops, all the others that morning had maybe one or two couples sitting at a table outside. Sarita had a line out the door at 10:30am. The line was for this bad boy, a “pan con chicharron.”
This helpful diagram might explain why Ivo (and the rest of Peru) is so bonkers for these things. It is a massive sandwich that turns brunch into the only meal you’ll want all day. Crammed inside two crispy halves of a thick French bread bun is a layer of “chicharron”, which I will translate as the fattiest part of the pork belly, slow-cooked for hours in a cauldron of spices, almost always over an open fire. It is topped with a layer of onions soaked in cold lime juice, and then with a layer of soft sweet potato slices.
So, even though we ate this in a car outside a clay restaurant on a dirt path, and even though I have legit seen other shops making the pork for these sandwiches outside, over an open fire, using a tree branch to stir… they are just as swoon-worthy as the food in the high end joints.
Complementing my most recent point, also noteworthy is the fact that even food sold from people literally working right on the street can be fantastic. Case and point, in front of the Metro where we buy our groceries, there is a woman who sells tamales. Every day, she drags a big pot of these husk-wrapped beauties to the corner and sells them for cash only. We grabbed a few for Dad and sisters to try pre-lunch one afternoon. Although she has three kinds, my personal favorite are the sweet ones, made from a sweeter corn variety with raisons at the center.
Finally, if you’re not in tears yet, and if you haven’t already bolted from the computer to go get something, anything, to eat… we also grabbed some churros from one of the original Manolos.