Now that McDonald’s and soon a Starbuck’s have infiltrated Cuzco’s Plaza de Armas (please boycott these), I thought it was time to paint a picture on what options there are for the foodie in the tourist bubble that is Cuzco, Peru. While pizzerias, backpacker cafes, and pubs are popular, if you only spend your money at these places you will miss out on the bounty of Andean recipes and ingredients that are right under your nose.
It was no more than a few years ago when a discerning foreign palate would find little option here, let alone the gourmet. Now celebrity chefs from Lima like Gastón Acurio and Rafael Osterling have set up shop and the organic movement is slowly catching on. Internationally trained chefs are experimenting with more and more of the 4,000 potatoes found in the Andes, new herbs, spices, chilies, and other produce. More fruits from the Amazon, which is not that far away – are appearing in sauces, desserts, and juice bars. Still, there’s more. If you know where to look there’s also excellent street grub and quinta’s, the small, traditional Andean restaurants that are now hidden among hotels and tour offices.
Though Cicciolinais often hailed as the one of the most elegant dining experiences in Cuzco, they pull off a farm fresh feel with bushels of garlic draped from the rafters and walls painted in earthy reds and yellows. Working directly with local farms, they sell Valley grown cardamom, quinoa, ají in the restaurant and in their bakery and breakfast nook on the first level, not to mention incorporate in their dishes. If you are still full from lunch, take a seat at the small dimly light bar for a glass of wine and sashimi, bruschetta, or whatever other blackboard tapas specials they have going, otherwise a hearty soup paired with squid ink tagliolini or beef tenderloin bathed in a sauce of sauco and gorgonzola are the way to go.
Unbelievably, Chicha Cuzco, which opened in February 2009, is the first restaurant in Cuzco from Gastón Acurio, Peru’s biggest celebrity (chef or otherwise). I think it is one of his best concepts because it really focuses on Andean and regional ingredients rather than his other restaurants that are just general Peruvian fusion. The one dining room restaurant is set in a beautiful beamed ceiling colonial building and serves highly original dishes such as Rocoto Relleno Pizza, Creamed Corn with Lamb Chops, and Huaracondo Pork.
Calle Plaza Regocijo 261
Located in the courtyard of the MAP (Museo de Arte Pre-Colombiano) this glass box building serves some of the most creative dishes around. Think of it as contemporary Peruvian cuisine and Novo Andino, or New Andean. Main courses and appetizers are works of art, and the sandwiches are quite good too. Don’t miss their sampling of causas – crayfish, trout, and solterito. While not everyone will go for guinea pig confit, dishes such as pork belly braised with pisco or Andean Pesto will please most discerning North American palates.
This is Cuzco’s original fine dining establishment. It’s well known by many tourists and for its well-executed Andean dishes using fresh ingredients and clean atmosphere. It’s a good place to start for dishes using Alpaca, cuy (guinea pig), or quinua.
Plaza de Armas
Inside the Hotel Monasterio this restaurant overlooks the courtyard at this hotel that was once a monastery that was once an Inca palace. Duck and Rice stew, alpaca tenderloin, and an array of French influenced dishes using local ingredients and seafood from the coast. Prices are the highest in Cuzco and quoted in dollars rather than soles, if that tells you anything.
Formerly a small café in San Blas, Greens moved to just of the Plaza de Armas to a much larger second floor space and redesigned menu that focuses on organic produce. The list of dishes is rather global, with main courses shifting from quinoa to pasta, to cous cous and rice noodles. There are also salads, soups, sandwiches, and a decent wine list.
Santa Catalina Angosta 135, 2nd Floor
The Cross Keys Pub
The Cross Keys was for the longest time on a second floor location overlooking the plaza. The space was ok, but could get a little tight around the bar. They’ve moved off the plaza, again to a second floor spot, and the space is massive and it really feels like a true English pub. The menu is pretty much the same with comforting English pub grub.
Jack’s Café Bar
On the corner of Cuesta San Blas and Choquechaca, Jack’s is definitely a place for gringo’s, but don’t let that scare you off. It’s great. There’s good coffee, huge sandwiches, pancakes and all around good breakfasts.
The same owners of the popular restaurant Fallen Angel run this small fusion bistro named after the fictional town in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude on the San Blas slope. Dishes dabble in Southeast Asia, the tropics, and of course Peru.
Cuesta San Blas 571
From the same restaurant group that owns the Map Café and Green’s, Pacha Papa focuses on straight Andean dishes, many made and served in clay pots or cooked on their wood fired oven in an upscale atmosphere. There is a large assortment of pizzas as well.
Plaza San Blas
On Plaza Nazarenas, Fallen Angel is one of the more adventurous restaurants in town. It’s mostly about the scene here – massive art installations, dining tables are pieces of glass placed over bathtub aquariums, images of angels and hell – though the steaks are good. Food and drinks tend to be pricier than they should be.
Named after Andean Black Mint, a common herb used in Peruvian cooking, Urubamba’s El Huacatay has become the Sacred Valley’s landmark restaurant chef Pio Vazquez de Velasco opened in early 2006. Dishes such as Gnocchi made of coca flour with strips of teriyaki beef and cashews scream of a more sophisticated dining experience than the typical buffet and pachamanca of typical valley tours. A stuffed tuber selection (sweet potato stuffed with Andean cheese and slathered in a sweet algarobbina sauce, yucca filled with blue cheese, etc.) keeps the menu lively, while small yet careful selected list of Argentine Malbecs insist the rest of the day will go that much smoother. This is the only restaurant in the valley that is worth a drive to all on its own.
Arica 620 (Urubamba)
A quinta is like a huarique in Lima. It is a simple, traditional restaurant, usually with a dining area that sits outside, that provides regional dishes at local prices. As much as Cuzco has grown and become a global city, there are still a few of these restaurants scattered about right in the center and San Blas. Try hearty, typical dishes like Chicharrones (fried pork skin), Cuy (guinea pig), Trucha (trout), Rocoto Relleno (stuffed peppers), and Sopa de Quinoa (Quinoa Soup).
My Quinta recommendations:
–Quinta Zarate, at Totora Paccha 763, is sort of hidden above San Blas.
–Quinta Eulalia, at Choquechaca 384, is believed to be the oldest in Cuzco.
Street Food in Cuzco
*Humita Lady – To the right of the door of Gato’s market, the humita lady sets up shop every day. For .75 soles, you get a choice between a sweet or savory humita wrapped in a corn leaf. My wife is an addict.
*Anticucho’s – On Avenida El Sol and connecting calles you can find, in the evenings, Cuzqueño’s behind small charcoal grills. Continually basting with spices and marinade, they are grilling anticuchos, or skewered beef hearts that are served with a potato and, if desired, a side of ají.
*Denotes a highly recommended eating experience.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.