I only heard about the Gastronauts a couple of weeks ago. They’re an adventurous eating club based in New York City. An article in the NYTimes detailed their exploits, which consisted of a $50-70 per person multi-person dinner at an ethnic restaurant somewhere in the city. I applied to join via a form on their webpage as soon as I read the article and was accepted a few days later. About a week later the Gastronauts alerted members via email that the next dinner would be held in the Peruvian restaurant Urubamba in Jackson Heights, Queens.
Urubamba’s menu is traditionally like every other Peruvian restaurant in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, or New Jersey, like Pio Pio or Coco Roco. There’s rotisserie chicken, lots of beef, and usually a cebiche or two. There’s little variation in restaurant to restaurant. Few plates stray from a general idea of what Peruvian cuisine is for Americans or what the restaurateurs think an American audience might want. This misses the point of Peruvian food completely. It’s highly regional and highly dependent on the ingredients that are fresh and locally sourced. While Peruvian ingredients are easier to come by as of late, most cannot be locally sourced of course. However, if Peruvian restaurants outside of Peru at least try to focus on a particular region or at least try to incorporate some of the less standard dishes they will be quite surprised at the reaction they receive. You watch.
On this night in Queens, the menu jumped around the country quite a bit. It wasn’t a straight criollo menu or straight norteña menu. It strayed from the typical American Peruvian restaurant menu to include regional dishes and though sounding exotic, all of them could and should be served to a wider audience in the United States. It might take Gaston Acurio’s La Mar to open in New York in 2011 to make it happen.
Pulpo al olivo was the first course one I’d choose to showcase the potential of Peruvian cuisine. It’s elegant, flavorful, creamy, and yet simple to prepare. Rocoto Relleno, which is a stuffed preparation of one of Peru’s strongest peppers. Sitting at my table was Joe DiStefano (NY food writer who wrote about the event for Edible Queens) who was surprised to find such a large pepper have so much heat. The rocoto’s were smaller than what my wife’s grandmother usually makes (these were likely from a jar), though the taste still came through. Anticuchos, skewered beef hearts often appear on Peruvian restaurant menus in New York, so it wasn’t much of a surprise it came next. This is one of Peru’s great street foods and I’m surprised street corner anticucherias, much like carts serving kebabs or lamb skewers, haven’t appeared as of yet in New York, at least in Jackson Heights. If you saw the lines at Tia Grima’s in the Lima ‘burb of Miraflores, I think it would be a wise move. Hell, there’s a Nikkei street cart in Los Angeles serving Lomo Saltado.
There was cebiche, but it was a northern variation from Tumbes consisted of Conchas Negras, or black clams. The preparation wasn’t typical (served in the shell) nor were the clams from the mangroves of northern Peru, yet it worked. While most in the United States believe that cooking cuy, or guinea pig, is illegal in the United States because of the Andean critter’s place as a household pet, it isn’t. In fact several Peruvian restaurant menus in New York serve cuy, though it sometimes needs to be ordered in advance or on a Sunday when specials are offered. Urubamba served the cuy to us one per table, which for a tasting menu was fine (normally it’s one per person). Most agreed that the taste is quite like chicken, though very slightly gamier. Urubamba served it oven baked, which is one of the most common preparation in Peru.
Patita con Mani, a cow’s foot soup with peanut sauce, was one I’ve never eaten in Peru and am not entirely sure of its origins. The use of mani (as seen with the rabbit later on) is a trait of the northern desert coast of Peru where the Moche influence is still strong. The marrow in the hearty soup was extremely gelatinous and the flavors strong. Pachamanca followed. Urubamba didn’t dig a hole in the ground to fire up the potluck of meats and tubers, but their pressure cooker worked perfectly fine. The meal ended with Picante de Conejo, rabbit in a peanut-chile sauce.
It was nice to see people genuinely excited about Peruvian food that wasn’t what they are used to. More and more I am getting the feeling of a Latin American food scene catching on in New York that goes beyond Mexican or Dominican. It hasn’t really happened yet. There are a few good places: Rayuela, Yerba Buena, Death & Co, and the new Nuela (I haven’t been, but I hear good things). We have Acurio’s La Mar in the spring and places like Carniceria AD to open soon. Could this be the start of something wonderful?The Gastronaut’s Menu At Urubamba
-Pulpo al Olivo (Octopus in Olive Sauce)
-Cebiche de Concha Negra (Black Clam Cebiche)
-Anticuchos de Corazon (Beef Heart Skewers)
-Rocoto Relleno (Stuffed Red Chile)
-Cuy (Guinea Pig)
-Pachamanca (Marinated meats, potatoes, and beans, buried and cooked with hot stones)
-Patita con Mani (Cow Foot Stew)
-Picante de Conejo (Rabbit in a Chile-Peanut Sauce)
-Chicha de Jora, Chicha Morada, and Cuzqueña URUMBAMBA
86-20 37th Ave
Queens, NY 11372
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.