I already knew from restaurants in the U.S. that Peruvian cuisine was both diverse and excellent, but I also knew that many dishes we find in overseas Peruvian restaurants are Lima-style, with lots of seafood and a number of Chinese-influenced dishes (Lima has one of the largest Chinatowns in the Americas). Andean food, I knew, would be somewhat different. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I knew I'd be eating more meat than seafood, and more than just alpaca and guinea pig. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality and diversity of Andean cuisine.
Potatoes are abundant in Peru (they originated there, and there are hundreds of varieties). Pretty much every meal will include potatoes, usually fries, papas doradas (browned potatoes, usually whole), or stewed along with meats. The potatoes that are most commonly served are very dense and starchy. You'll often be served rice and potatoes together. Other grains, especially popular as soup ingredients, are barley and quinua, or quinoa, the "mother grain" of the Incas, which has recently become better known here through health food vendors. Though you'll see "frejol" on menus, Peru is not a bean cuisine like Mexico or the Caribbean countries. However, I was served lima beans on several occasions. A popular salad, called solterito (shown left), combines lima beans with cheese, corn, peas, onions and tomatoes. Lima beans do indeed come from Peru, so we've been pronouncing it wrong all our lives.
There are dozens, if not scores, if not hundreds of soups in Peruvian cuisine, some served as main courses. I tried a lamb and grains soup (with barley, quinoa and corn), a chupe de quinua (quinoa soup with egg, vegetables and cheese), which may be the most popular of Andean soups, a fantastic sopa de ajo (garlic soup), which was one of the best things I tasted in Cusco, and a chairo, a soup of mixed meat and vegetables (including lima beans and hominy) in what I took to be a chicken stock--it reminded me of a cross between a Mexican pozole and a Caribbean sancocho. I'm not sure what the difference between a sopa and a chupe is, and I've seen both sopa de quinua and chupe de quinua used. Also very popular are cremas, or cream soups, but I didn't get around to trying any of them.
Lomo saltado, a Chinese-influenced beef stir fry is ubiquitous on Peruvian menus, but the only version I had was a tapa at an upscale Cusco restaurant.
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In general, I've decided to discuss the restaurants separately from the dishes. I figure the food will be of interest to most of my readers and the restaurant details will be more useful to travelers to Peru. I had excellent meals in dirt cheap restaurants that catered mostly to locals, mid-range restaurants that seemed to get a mix of local and tourist business, and high-end places that did a mostly tourist business. While there are excellent meals to be had at the more formal or "tourist-friendly" restaurants, don't miss out on meals at local picanterias and quintas, which can be some of the most rewarding food experiences in Cusco.
La Quinta Eulalia
On a quiet end of a street near the San Blas neighborhood, this is a great bet for an outdoor lunch among the locals, and it's an amazing value. I believe most plates include a rocoto relleno and a tamal as well as potatoes and vegetables. As I mentioned above, it's a venerable, classic quinta. In addition to that wonderful plate of lamb 'n' stuff, I had my bowl of chairo there.
This is a picanteria, a working-class eatery where you're unlikely to see other tourists. It's on the street that's the extension of Choquechaca. The restaurant, with long picnic tables, looks like a cross between a mess hall and a roadhouse, and the customers will be doing as much drinking as eating. The food is really cheap and really good, and you'll soak up lots of local color. This is where I had the roast kid.
This pleasant little restaurant just off the Plaza de Armas seems to be one of the best bets in the heart of the city. The food is wonderful and the prices reasonable. I had two lunches there. The first time I had the sopa de ajo and the estofado de pollo. The soup so bowled me over that I went back the next day for the anticuchos, which were also excellent.
Plaza San Blas
This open-air restaurant is designed after the quintas, but dinner is served. It's very popular, especially with tourists, and is recommended by most guidebooks, so you'll need a dinner reservation (lunch shouldn't be a problem for walk-ins). They do a wide range of Andean and Peruvian dishes, and the courtyard is very comfortable, with ample heating at night. I had the aji de gallina there as well as an excellent rocoto relleno appetizer. The slightly sweet little rolls (with an almost challah-like taste), baked fresh in an open hearth oven in the courtyard, are fabulous.
On a street that leads up toward San Blas from the Cathedral, this upscale restaurant and tapas bar serves a mix of Italian food, Mediterranean-influenced tapas, and Novo Andino cuisine. I went there to try the causa de cuy I had written about earlier, but the tapas I tried were quite good too. Note that at the bar one can order from both the dinner menu and the tapas menu, but at the tables only the dinner menu is available. If you can't get a table, it should be easier to score a seat at the bar, but make a reservation if you really want a table.
Note: the trout and the chupe de quinua were eaten at restaurants in Ollantaytambo, a town I'll be posting about later.