Peruvian cuisine is in the spotlight. The National Restaurant Association cites it several times in its 2018 What's Hot Culinary Forecast, including in the "trends heating up" category. It's been on the front burner for years: what's the persistent appeal of Peruvian dining?
Maribel Rivero, of Yuyo Restaurant in Austin, explains its allure: it's multifaceted in terms of flavor, geography and culture. Peru relies on versatile ingredients such as potatoes, chiles, corn and seafood. With a coastline tracing the Pacific for 1500 miles, and Andean peaks soaring 22,000 feet high, the varied landscape has attracted immigrants from around the globe, further enriching the cuisine. Incan cuisine married with Spanish and West African in the colonial days, then with Chinese, Japanese, German and Italian in the 20th century.
Peru's government promotes Peru as a culinary destination, and lobbies UNESCO to join the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, which has enshrined Korean kimchi, Belgian beer and Neapolitan pizza. Statistics suggest they've succeeded: in 2013, 40 percent of all tourism to Peru was motivated primarily by food, generating about $700 million.
Although Peruvians are a relatively small portion of the Latin American immigrant community in the US (651,000 out of 5,477,000 in 2015 according to Pew Research Center), their cuisine has a strong presence. Peruvian restaurants are well
established in the fine dining market, as well as in lower end home-style restaurants.
Major dishes occupying pride of place on Peruvian menus include ceviche or cebiche (raw fish quick-marinated in lime with chiles); pollo a la brasa (rotisserie grilled chicken) and lomo saltado (a Chinese-Peruvian fusion of beef stir fried with french fries, onions and tomato).
Frequent supporting characters on the menu include causa (a seasoned mashed potato terrine), aji de gallina (creamed chicken), rocoto relleno (stuffed pepper) and papas a la huancaina (potatoes in spicy cheese sauce). Street food influence manifests in empanadas (filled turnovers) and anticuchos (grilled meat skewers, traditionally of beef or alpaca heart).
Drinks of note include pisco, a brandy essential to the celebrated cocktail pisco sour; Inka Cola, a vibrant yellow-green soft drink flavored with lemon verbena; and chicha morada, a sweet spiced non-alcoholic concoction composed of purple corn and pineapple.
Let's visit the story of four Peruvian restaurants around the country. Embracing this diverse, inventive cuisine, the thousands of other Peruvian restaurants in US are each writing a story of their own, ranging from humble street carts to high-end white tablecloth dining rooms.
Yuyo Peruvian, Austin, Texas
El Chile Group launched Yuyo Peruvian in October of 2017 after success with four Mexican restaurants in the area. The Bolivian-born brother-sister team of executive chef Maribel Rivero and owner Carlos Rivero saw an opening for the kind of innovative contemporary cuisine CIA graduate Maribel Rivero perfected while working at Lima, Peru's celebrated Malabar Restaurant under chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino. Offering dinner six days a week, happy hour, and a full beer, wine and cocktail menu, Yuyo is a fine dining, date-night destination.
Maribel describes her ideal customer as someone open minded, "who'd like to take their taste buds on a trip to a new land." She's confident in the appeal of Peruvian cuisine because "it's delicious, and it's more approachable than people think," with many of the products which form the core of the cuisine very familiar to US diners, such as potatoes and corn.
Yuyo focuses on local, sustainably sourced seafood for the eight cebiches on the menu. Anticuchos are updated: while traditional beef heart is available, so are gulf shrimp and cauliflower. Entrees range from $16-$25, with arroz con mariscos featuring corvina, clams, mussles and aji amarillo in the top spot. Craft cocktails incorporate chica morada and passion fruit, and an innovative rosé sangría includes maca (a sweet Andean tuber) and aperol.
The Freakin Incan, Roswell and Tucker, Georgia
At The Freakin Incan Peruvian Street Food, chef/owner Mikiel Arnold aims to attract curious customers by "not taking ourselves too seriously. With our name, people's expectations aren't that high, then we blow them out of the water with the flavors."
Initially launched as a food truck in July 2014, The Freakin Incan now comprises two brick-and-mortars on the outskirts of metropolitan Atlanta, with the truck now relegated to private catering, which Arnold values: "catering is a huge supplement, it's almost necessary to any food service business." He started the operation when he recognized that the Atlanta area lacked Peruvian restaurant options, and was surprised to discover how large the Peruvian community in the area was, as they beat a path to his establishment. "My mission was to educate the American market on Peruvian food, to show them something new and get them hooked."
His casual eateries are modestly sized, with 34 indoor seats at the original Roswell location and 65 at the newer Tucker location, which emphasizes a bar and big screen TVs to attract soccer fans. "We make very authentic, traditional cuisine," says Arnold, "always relying on higher end, quality ingredients." They're open for lunch and dinner seven days a week, with entrees ranging from $11-16 and table service.
Lomo saltado is their biggest seller. Arnold found beef heart anticuchos very well received in the Roswell spot, but less so in Tucker. However, when he tried removing it from the menu, customer demand forced it back in action. "For the most part, people are curious to try it."
La Leña Peruvian Restaurant, Portland, Oregon
Chef Adam Warren and his Peruvian wife Angeline Perla named La Leña after their intended signature dish, pollo a la brasa. "There's al carbon, over charcoal, and la leña, over firewood," explains Perla. They imported a 1,500-pound rotisserie from H. Ruiz & Hermanos in Peru and developed a simple gluten-free marinade with tamari, dried red chiles, cumin and oregano. While their pollo a la brasa served family style as a whole, half or quarter draws raves, lomo saltado is their biggest seller.
They serve lunch and dinner six days a week, and brunch on the weekends. "Brunch is the one service I take a little liberty with. Lunch and dinner we stick to pretty classic traditional dishes: I have a lot of respect for the cuisine, most dishes are really well thought out." But since Peru lacks a brunch tradition, Warren developed some tempting interpretations. "So far the winner is our chicharrones benedict," topping a Peruvian style roll and draped with aji rocoto hollandaise. Also popular is the pan con chicharrones, a traditional sandwich with fried sweet potato and salsa criolla eaten for breakfast in Peru. Panettone french toast is a sweet alternative, stuffed with candied citrus, raisins and mascarpone cream, served with fried sweet plantains and chancaca (raw sugar) syrup.
After years in fine dining, Warren thrives on attracting families. "My goal was repeat customers. I want a relationship more like I'm feeding people, not that I'm a destination or an event." They embrace the farm-to-table, locavore heritage from his fine dining work experience, "not just for the moral aspect of the impact on the earth, but also for the quality of your finished product and the true clean flavors of produce that hasn't traveled long distances," says Warren.
La Leña opened in July of 2017. Their entrees range from $13-$18, and they offer craft cocktails along with beer and wine. Customers order at the counter and seat themselves, then are served by wait staff.
Paiche, Portland, Oregon
With barely two years in the business, chef Jose Luis de Cossio has reinvented his tiny Peruvian restaurant repeatedly. He launched Paiche as a breakfast spot featuring ceviche and quinoa bowls; shifted that menu to lunch service, building a frenzied following at his 22-seat restaurant; then morphed to high-end ceviche-centered dinner service, with most dishes priced around $37. Before his first year ended, a local paper named Paiche restaurant of the year.
Nine months later, he pivoted again, returning to a weekday brunch format (Tuesday - Friday from 10AM-2PM) and adopting a completely vegan, gluten-free menu. Now he hand writes the menu daily on notebook paper--about three dishes, under $10--and diners order at the counter. It's a one-person operation.
"My goal is to have a unique experience of a new path, vegan Peruvian small plates," says de Cossio. "It's traditional in the taste of basic ingredients. The food is my own and personal, each day new based on my shopping. It's complex but it's simple. I'm navigating in a global cuisine. I have my technique from Peru, but consider anything is possible. Sometimes I use black garlic, sometimes I use plum vinegar from Japan--I love it, it gives some saltiness without salt."
His latest business iteration reflects his commitment to a sustainable lifestyle. "I have a mission. To make people feel good about what they're eating is very important. But also balance with my family, creating a family dinner environment at home, and time for my surfing, a sport that I love. Also I have a dog. I don't have to be chasing people, hassling for prices, or contributing to overfishing."