Tuesday, November 12, 2013

In Search of Peru(vian Cuisine)

I first visited Peru in 1979 and, except for brief layovers at Lima’s Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chávez, I haven’t visited the country for nearly 30 years. At the time of that early visit, on a backpacker budget, I survived mostly on roasted chicken, which is indeed a Peruvian specialty – in fact, one recently closed restaurant in Berkeley specialized in the dish.

Unfortunately, my reliance on pollo a las brasas blinded me to the rest of what is undoubtedly the South American continent's finest and most diverse cuisine, though I didn’t have the knowledge to appreciate it at the time. Fortunately, in the intervening years, there’s been a boom in Peruvian gastronomy in both Santiago (think Barandiarán) and Buenos Aires (think the homey Status or the more elaborate Bardot, among many).

When I’m home in California, though, my options are limited for a cuisine that I could happily enjoy at least weekly. After four or five months in South America, when I’m back sleeping in own bed, I’m usually tired of eating in restaurants and, when I do go out, I’m rarely close to outstanding restaurants like San Francisco’s La Mar or Half Moon Bay’s La Costanera.

In the East Bay, unfortunately, our Peruvian options are limited and we have to settle for simpler fare. We greatly enjoy the comida criolla at Berkeley’s Arriba Perú, a few blocks from the University of California campus, but they inexplicably do not offer ají de gallina, one of my favorite Peruvian dishes. Nor do they have a liquor license, so pisco sours are not an option (though once, when I inquired about it, they served us their limonada especial (“special lemonade”) on the house (presumably evading the letter of the law). We usually bring a bottle of our own Argentine or Chilean wine to accompany their ceviche and other seafood dishes.
Sunday night, though, we ventured with friends to suburban Alameda (no relation to the Avenida del Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins, the alternate name for Santiago’s main boulevard) to dine at Chicha Bistro, a new Peruvian option that’s not much farther away than Arriba Perú. It’s not an elite restaurant, but dishes such as adobo de chancho (marinated pork, with a side of fried sweet potatoes) are abundant and flavorful (I appear to have regained every ounce a 20-mile bicycle ride through the Oakland Hills on Sunday). I passed on the ají de gallina this time because the pork (pictured above) sounded so appealing, and it was indeed flavorful.
What tips the scale over Arriba Perú is that Chicha does have a liquor license to serve pisco sours (suitably tart, pictured above) and even Peruvian wine (a deep red Intipalka Tannat, pictured below, that I had no idea was even produced in Peru, as the varietal is almost exclusive to Uruguay). Chicha Bistro easily passes the “Would I go back?” test that I apply to restaurants, though we would have preferred a quieter ambiance.
Being authentically Peruvian, Chicha even shows football on a wall-mounted TV – but last night, it was American handegg rather than the soccer I would have expected. I won’t go back very soon, though, because next week I’m flying to Santiago en route to exploring Patagonia for several months.

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