When traveling, it is sometimes advisable to go by the guidebook and follow other peoples’ recommendations, while at other times, it is best to throw the book out the window, and follow your own instincts. I much prefer the latter because it gives you a sense of discovery and makes you feel like a true traveler as opposed to just a tourist. And believe me, there’s a great chasm between the two. A tourist goes places to take pictures of himself/herself in front of the popular sites; buy souvenirs; and get a tan, generally playing it pretty safe, and not straying to far from the herd of other tourists. A gastronaut like myself, however, is always open to try something new; prefers street food over fine dining; and loves to go off the eaten path in search of his next meal.
Lima is a great city to explore, and after spending a couple of days getting oriented in the ritzy neighborhood of Miraflores, I decided to try out the more liveable, downtempo area known as Barranco. It reminded me Brooklyn, my home for 11 years, and I decided that if I ever moved to Lima, this would be the place. An eclectic mix of casual eateries, mom and pop shops, and run-down casonas (mansions),the neighborhood had a decidedly laid-back appeal, and a plethora of street art. I knew some good eating lay around the way.
Since the Lonely Planet Guide only listed 3 restaurants for Barranco–2 of which were on the pricey side–we decided to go for the cheap option, La Canta Rana. “An unpretentious place that packs in the locals…” was all the description I needed, as the book said to look out for the green walls. Unfortunately, when we rolled up to the spot and peeked inside, the dust and scaffolding told us that the place was clearly not open for business. Luckily a man inside said that their sister restaurant was open just a few blocks away. He gestured this way and that, and we vaguely set off in the direction to which he had pointed. We soon stumbled into a small covered mercado with various little stalls, some serving food. There was some nice chicken and rice going on at one spot, but the place that hooked me was serving huge plates of ceviche. I was almost going to suggest we give up our search and eat here as I reflexively took a seat and snagged a menu. When I saw the words, “La Canta Ranita,” however, I knew we had arrived.
No sooner had we sat down, when a kid brought us a complimentary mug of soup–a basic, but delicious seafood broth, with a mussel tucked away at the bottom. I checked out the menu of some 20 offerings–mostly seafood, of course–and ordered the grilled pulpo (octopus). My friend Sue ordered something called Causa de Pescado arrebozado, which the table next door was having. Despite our humble surroundings, what we got was worthy of a fine-dining establishment.
The Causa was actually pieces of fried fish atop a “pillow” of mashed sweet potato and avocado, all topped with a mayonnaise and tomato relish. Super good! And I loved the vertical presentation. Then, my octopus arrived–three long tentacles smothered in an aji (chili) sauce. Wow! This dish is tailor-made for me, I was thinking as I carved off a bite of tender tentacle, smoky from the grill.
Later that night, we decided to try another one of the book’s picks–this one a more upscale place called Chala. On an interesting ‘street’ (if you could call it that), Bajada de Banos, Chala served novoandina cusine, the nouvelle cuisine of Peru, and its prices reflected that. Luckily we arrived some 45 minutes before the restaurant opened, so we had the opportunity to check out the surrounding area, which we soon learned was chock full of interesting eateries. There seemed to be a lot of competition for customers, too, as restaurant hosts, approached us, menues in hand, trying to get us to have a seat inside their place. One place in particular caught my eye because of their colorful, mouth-watering menu, and the low prices of the food. They also offered us a free pisco sour as a pre-dinner cocktail, so who was I to argue? We took a seat overlooking the ocean at the homey Toto’s Restaurant.
There was one item on the menu that seemed to good to be true–especially at the low low price of 20 soles (about US $8)– so I had to ask them again about it, and this was the Specialty of the House, a seafood stew featuring crab, fish, octopus, squid, mussels, scallops, and shrimp. It was indeed available, and though I expected it to look nothing like the picture on the menu, I ordered it anyway. When it arrived, to my surprise, it looked even better.
All of the seafood I mentioned before arrived swimming in a broth made of tomato and clam juice, and topped with chopped cilantro. There were even a couple long slices of yuca for good measure. I had just eaten a dish very similar in San Francisco, the famous cioppino, but Toto’s special blew it away on all counts. The fact that I had practically stumbled into this place made it all the more satisfying because it really felt like a discovery worth telling others about.
Just to make sure the whole day wasn’t a dream, we revisited La Canta Ranita and Toto’s the next day as well. For lunch, my friend Susan had the Arroz con mariscos, a kind of Peruvian seafood paella, topped with a healthy dose of parmesano cheese. I went for the Pescado frito con langostinos al ajillo, fried fish topped with shrimp in a chili sauce. Both dishes were fantastic and under 20 soles each.
For dinner that night at Toto’s we both went for traditional dishes. Susan had the Aji de Galina, chicken cooked in a thick walnut and cream sauce. I ate the Seco de cabrito con frijoles, stewed baby goat with white beans and rice. While it would have been tough to top my previous nights’ meal, the baby goat was super tender and not gamey in the least, and the beans sang with a hint of cumin. Susan’s chicken was very rich, but tasty as well. All in all, second time around, we could not go wrong, and we didn’t