It took a few trips to Fiesta Gourmet and La Picantería in Lima a few years ago to realize I needed to spend more time exploring the food of Peru’s Northern Coast. It was Fiesta’s arroz con pato a la Chiclayana to be exact. It was one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes at the time and quite possibly my favorite traditional Peruvian dish. What intrigued me was that Fiesta 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. I wanted to go to Illimo.
Is that the secret to the best arroz con pato? Just 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 system. It could be a potato from a particular altitude or a mollusk found on a stretch of coast that no one ever goes. It’s what makes Peruvian food unique and why the best of a Peruvian dish is usually found in a specific place. While the cuisines of other countries also have this problem, Peru is so rich in biodiversity that it is an entire other level of specificity. It makes Peruvian food difficult to replicate outside of the country, at least authentically.
I was armed with a list of picantería recommendations from Héctor Solís, most of which specialized in one Norteña dish. Most were in rural towns on the outskirts of Trujillo and Chiclayo. Héctor’s father, Alberto, who I had dinner with at the Chiclayo Fiesta Gourmet, shared his thoughts too, as did waiters, taxi drivers, bartenders, and everyone else I came in contact with. The following list is the result and it is by no means a final list on the subject. Still, if you are looking into researching the restaurants of this region, it is a good starting point. Some of the eateries are dirt floor shacks with thatched walls, others are beach side dives that have been open for 60 years.
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, a small feeder fish. Their other specialty is ceviche de chinguirito, a ceviche made from the dried flesh of the guitarfish, onion, and lime. Misericodia 958, Monsefú.
Picantería El Amigo
A few kilometers from Monsefú in Puerto Etén on the coast is this one room restaurant in the middle of the empty, dusty town, with the best tortilla de raya con mariscos in Peru. The sting ray, once worshiped by the Moché, is here served in a Spanish-style omelette that comes out brown and crisp along the edges, while moist in the center. Diced up bits of chiringuito, shrimp, and squid adjoin the skate, while purple onions soaked in lime are placed on top. Calle Diego Ferré, Puerto Etén.
Picantería Rosita Inga
A few blocks from the center of town of Ferreñafe, where the Sicán 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, but 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. Av. Tacna 625, Distrito Pueblo Nuevo, Ferreñafe.
The sopa de cholo at Angelyna Martha, a garden restaurant on the edge of Ferreñafe, is a peasant style stew that is their specialty, though they don’t always have it. Another favorite is the causa a la Ferreñafeña, which is unlike any causa you will 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 when I was there), which has been stewed in onions and ají amarillo. A purple olive, sweet potato, choclo, yuca, boiled banana, and a hard-boiled egg are served on the same plate. Essentially, it’s causa deconstructed. Avenida Peru, Santa Valentina, Ferreñafe.
Restaurante La Colmena
Illimo is a rural village a few kilometers beyond the Sicán pyramids of Tucumé known for its cilantro. The recipes in the town have evolved little since the Spanish arrived and adapted the local ingredients and cooking styles from the remnants of the Sicán and Moché. The pato mechado con frijoles, essentially duck with rice slow cooked in a clay pot with a side of canary beans, is their specialty. The remnants of the black feathers on the skin of leg and thigh of the duck are still visible, though you cannot argue the flavor. 2 blocks north of the main plaza, Illimo.
Calling El Mochica a picantería is a bit of stretch, though it still offers decent traditional dishes and daily specials like shambar that can be hard to track down elsewhere. Their pepián de pavo is made with a Disney-esque turkey leg on a bed of stewed corn in a peanut sauce. Calle Santa Marina 146, La Merced, Trujillo. Also in Huanchaco. elmochica.com.pe
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 Esatablo, a open air restaurant between the Moché pyramids of Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna and the actual town of Moché, makes their Theologian Soup with chunks of white bread, potato, tomato, and milk, spiced with garlic, celery, oregano, pepper, salt, onion, and ají amarillo. The dish was created in the seventeenth century by Dominican monks, therefore the religious connotation. Calle por las huacas, Moche.
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 corvina (seabass) roe sack, served with a little bowl of leche de tigre. Cangrejo reventado is a classic Huanchaco dish that has gone national. Here the stewed crab meat pulp is served in the shell with seaweed and boiled potatoes on the side. The ceviche mococho is served with an ají amarillo sauce like in a tiradito, but with a helping of seaweed. Larco 836, Huanchaco. bigbenhuanchaco.com