This past November, I spent a week eating my way through Lima. I visited almost all of its high end restaurants, most of which are listed on the Latin America’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Lima’s food scene is incredible and it was hard not to eat well every single time, especially armed with my long list of must-visit restaurants. A few of its more casual spots definitely surprised me and some ended up being my favourites, like La Picanteria.
We arrived at La Picanteria around 11:30am. The restaurant is located in a renovated one story, nondescript building in Surquillo, one of Lima’s working class neighbourhood. A man standing outside unlocked the door and let us in. We were there for an early lunch and even though their Facebook page indicated they opened at 11am, they were clearly not ready. We were led into the bright yellow bar area where we waited patiently with the aid of one (or two) passion fruit pisco sours. They are also famous for their homemade chicha de jora–a type of fermented corn drink–displayed in colourful jars on shelves. La Picanteria is helmed by famous Lima chef Héctor Solís who wanted to highlight traditional picanterias with this Lima incarnation. Picanterias are casual taverns popular in Arequipa in southern Peru as well as some parts in the country’s north. Picanterias are usually open for lunch only and serve family-style, regional specialties. This Picanteria serves some traditional picanteria food like causas and cau cau but it specializes in fresh fish and seafood.
An hour or so after we entered the restaurant, we were finally ushered into the dining room. I really had no idea of what to expect and was pleasantly surprised by the thatched roof and the long communal tables covered in kitschy, vinyl checkered table cloths flanked by curved, turquoise-painted, wood stools. The fresh daily catch–so fresh it’s almost quivering–is displayed on a bed of ice right in front of the opening to the kitchen. To the right of that is a black board listing all the fish and seafood, their weight and quantity. Every time a fish is ordered, the board gets updated until there are no more fish listed, then everybody goes home and that’s it for the day. You are charged by weight and can order your fish to be prepared in any of the eight traditional cooking methods, from ceviche to fried to stuffed and grilled. We ordered a two kilo cabrilla and asked for half of it to be prepared into ceviche and the other fried. But first, we decided to start with the rocoto relleno en chupe and dear lord, was that ever the best decision! This, my friends, was the best soup I’ve ever had. Seriously. The rocoto relleno (a red, slightly spicy pepper stuffed with meat) is served floating in a magical creamy broth that’s slightly spicy, luscious and so flavourful. The soup is so large, it could feed 4 hungry people as a main meal. We, unfortunately, had to leave some of it behind in order to be able to enjoy the rest of the lunch, which was just as scrumptious.
The Picanteria ceviche was one of the best I tasted in Peru simply because it was so fresh. The zesty mélange was simply served with thick slices of camote (sweet potato) and choclo (Peruvian corn) and topped with a few seaweed branches. The ceviche was followed by the rest of the fish, which was deep fried, head, bones and all, and served with some fried yucca and a side of salsa criolla, a mix of sliced onions, ahi amarillo, lime juice and cilantro. Simple, yet so tasty when it’s this fresh. La Picanteria is ranked number 36 on Latin America’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants and should definitely be on your list of must eats when in Lima.
388 Francisco Moreno (corner of Gonzales Prada), Surquillo, Lima
Telephone: 241 6676
Monday to Saturday, 11am to 5pm