It took a trip to Fiesta Gourmet in Lima to realize I needed to spend more time exploring the food of Peru’s Northern Coast. It was the Arroz con Pato a la Chiclayana to be exact. It’s the restaurants most popular dish and quite possibly my favorite dish in Peru. What intrigued me was that it mentioned the town of Illimo, outside of Chiclayo, as the source of the cilantro, an ingredient equally as important in the dish as the duck or rice, though it lacks the headliner status.
Is that the secret to the best Arroz con Pato: cilantro from one specific town in Peru. In all of my research in Peruvian food that seems to be the key: a specific ingredient from a specific place. It might be a type of Amazonian fish that comes from a particular river. It could be the sausage made from the pork of a particular ranch or a sea urchin found on a particular coastline. The diversity in food is no different than the diversity among birds, mammals, or orchids. It’s what makes Peruvian food unique and why the best of a Peruvian dish is usually found in one place only.
I contacted Héctor Solís, the chef of Fiesta in Lima and part of the son of the owner, Alberto Solís for his recommendations on the picanterias, the traditional restaurants that specialize in a particular Norteña dish. He gave me a list of small restaurants in the north, mostly in rural towns on the outskirts of Trujillo and Chiclayo. Héctor’s father, Alberto, who I had dinner with at the Chiclayo Fiesta Gourmet, gave his thoughts to the gringo that knows so much about Peru, as did my waiter and bartender at the Trujillo Fiesta. Some of the eateries I went were dirt floor shacks with thatched walls, others were beach side dives that had been open for 60 years. Here are the highlights of the Picanterias near Trujillo and Chiclayo:
Picantería Mi Paulita – This large cement floor restaurant with a thatched roof beside the Colegio San Carlos in Monsefú is famous for their panquitas de life, a sudado made from life, which is a small feeder, which sadly they were out of that day. Their other specialty is ceviche de chinguirito, a ceviche made from the dried flesh of the guitarfish, onion, and lime. Monsefú, Misericodia 958, Tel: 979-505-966.
Picantería El Amigo – A few kilometers from Monsefú in Puerto Eten on the coast is this one room restaurant in the middle of the empty, dusty town, with best Tortilla de Raya con Mariscos in Peru. The manta ray, once worshipped by the Moche, is here served in an omelette that comes out brown and crisp along the edges, while mosit in the center. Diced up bits of chinguito, shrimp, and squid adjoin the ray, while purple onions soaked in lime are placed on top. Puerto Eten, Calle Diego Ferré.
Picanteria Rosita Inga – A few blocks from the center of town of Ferreñafe, where the Sican Museum is found, this crumbling stone floor building with faded blue walls specializes in Carne Seca, a dish rarely seen outside of Chiclayo. The carne seca is essentially dehydrated beef, or beef jerky, in big chunks. Your jaw will ache. It’s covered with purple onions soaked in lime and sided by a bowl of canary beans cooked in pork fat. Ferreñafe, Distrito Pueblo Nuevo, Av. Tacna 625
Angelyna Martha – Solis advised me to try the Sopa de Cholo at Angelyna Martha, a garden restaurant on the edge of town, though it was unavailable. So I opted for another local specialty, the Causa a la Ferreñafeña. This is unlike any causa you have ever had in taste, texture, or plating. It’s served warm, the potatoes are only slightly mashed, and are not filled with anything. They are topped by a whole fish (Pampinito my waitress said), which has been stewed in onions and aji Amarillo. A purple olive, sweet potato, choclo, yucca, boiled banana, and a hard-boiled egg are served on the same plate. Ferreñafe, Santa Valentina, Avenida Peru.
Restaurante La Colmena – Illimo is a rural village a few kilometers beyond the Sican pyramids of Tucume known for its cilantro. The recipes in the town have evolved little since the Spanish arrived and adapted the local ingredients and cooking styles of the remnants of the Sican and Moche cultures. The Pato Mechado con Frijoles, essentially duck with rice slow cooked in a clay pot with a side of canary beans, is their specialty. Oddly, the cilantro that they are known for wasn’t used in the rice and white rice is used. The remnants of the black feathers on the skin of leg and thigh of the duck were still visible, though you cannot argue the flavor. Illimo, 2 blocks north of the main plaza, 979908083.
El Mochica – Calling El Mochica a picateria is a bit of stretch, as the restaurant has expanded to three locations (Trujillo, Huanchaco, and Moche). Still, like Fiesta with Chiclayo, the restaurant has one of the best representations of dishes from Trujillo. It wasn’t Monday, so I couldn’t order their Shambar, but their Pepian de Pavo made up for it. The dish, made with a Disney size turkey leg on a bed of stewed corn in a peanut sauce. Trujillo, Bolivar 462, 044-224-401, www.elmochica.com.pe. Also in Moche and Huanchaco.
El Establo – Sopa Teologa isn’t a soup. Peru actually has a history of dishes being called soups but not being them (Sopa Seca, for example). At El Satablo, a open air restaurant between the Moche pyramids of Huaca del Sol y Huaca de la Luna and the actual town of Moche, makes their Theologian Soup with chunks of white bread, potato, tomato, and milk, spiced with garlic, celery, oregano, pepper, salt, onion, and aji amarillo. The dish was created in the 17th century by Dominican monks, therefore the religious connotation. Moche, Calle por las huacas.
Big Ben – Big Ben is more of a glitzy cevicheria than a humble picanteria, yet it has been around for decades and serves a wide variety of specialties from one of the country’s great eating beaches: Huanchaco. The seafood centric menu is massive, though a few items are found nowhere else. Hueveras Fritas, for example is a fried womb of corvina (seabass) eggs, served with a little bowl of leche de tigre. Cangrejo Reventado is a classic Huanchaco dish that has gone mainstream. Here the stewed crab meat pulp is served in the crab shells with seaweed on top and boiled potatoes on the side. The Ceviche Mococho is served with an aji amarillo sauce like in a tiradito, but with a helping of seaweed. Huanchaco, Larco 836,044-461378, www.bigbenhuanchaco.com
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.