During the woefully short day-and-a-half I had to explore South America’s culinary capital last fall, I planned every bite down to the minute. It was just after the 50 Best list for South American restaurants had been released, and I was determined to eat the tasting menus at numbers one and two: Virgilio Martinez’s Central and Gaston Açurio’s Astrid y Gaston. I pulled every string you could imagine to secure coveted reservations at both restaurants. All 46 courses were memorable (to say the least); they were two of the greatest meals I've ever had. My sister Ali, along for the ride, still talks about the otherworldly platings and unexpected Amazonian ingredients at Central; to this day, I marvel at how perfectly each detail at Astrid y Gaston was orchestrated.
But the best thing I ate in Lima didn’t come from a Michelin-starred kitchen. It didn't have an elaborate backstory or music commissioned for the moment I popped it into my mouth. Instead, it cost five sol and was served street-side in a styrofoam cup—and it was completely unplanned.
It happened on our second day in the City of Kings. Still full from our 15-course meal at Central the night before, Ali and I met up with a friend-of-a-friend, Paola, for coffee and avocado toast at El Pan De La Chola in trendy Miraflores. Paola worked as a food writer for some of the local outlets, and generously agreed to show us around for the morning. After perusing rows of unfamiliar fruits and vegetables at a huge food market and picking up a few well-priced gems at the neighborhood’s amazing, packed-to-the-gills antique stores, our new friend insisted we make a quick stop during our walk over to that unforgettable lunch at Astrid y Gaston.
“I know you’re heading to a four-hour lunch,” she started, “but you can’t leave Lima without trying Tomas’ leche de tigre.” Dismissing our halfhearted protests, Paola led us to a somewhat dingy-looking storefront framed by bright signs announcing a short list of classic Peruvian seafood dishes. It was the start of the weekday lunch rush, and the tiny counter space—there were maybe six stools pulled up just inside the slight overhang—was crammed full with diners, all happily shoveling ceviche, parihuela (fish soup), or chiccarron mixto (mixed fried seafood) into their mouths.
Paola spoke to the woman behind the counter in rapid Spanish, and I handed over the single gold coin required.
"That’s Tomas’ mother,” she explained, “and there’s the chef behind her.” She motioned to the slender young chef, watching over saucepans lit up with high, dancing flames. While we waited, we got the back story. The son of a locally famous Nikkei (Peruvian-Japanese) chef, Tomas Matsufuji had pursued a career in engineering and chemistry before giving it up to return to the family business. His hole-in-the-wall ceviche spot, Al Toke Pez, had become popular with Lima foodie-types for his pared-down approach to Peruvian street food and unrelenting dedication to using only the freshest seafood (he buys direct from local fishermen each morning, and when the fish runs out, Al Toke Pez closes).
It was easy to see how Tomas had made a name for himself when I tried my first bite of the dish Paola had in mind: A generous helping of tart and spicy ceviche marinade—colloquially known as leche de tigre, or tiger’s milk—brimming with pieces of sashimi-quality fish, thinly-sliced red onion, aji amarillo, giant Peruvian corn cooked both tender and toasted for crunch, all topped with just-fried, breaded squid and fresh cilantro. Worlds better than every other take on ceviche we tasted in Peru (and we sampled quite a few), it was heaven in a to-go cup.
If I ever make it back to Lima, I’m not wasting any time on reservations: I’m going straight to Al Toke Pez.
WHERE TO STAY
San Isidro: The Westin Lima Hotel
A landmark in the ritzy San Isidro neighborhood, the Westin is one of the tallest building in Lima—which means amazing views of the city (especially if you’re lucky enough to visit when city's infamous grey haze subsides). The rooms are comfortable and well appointed, and the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, Maras, is a destination in itself. Calle Las Begonias 450; starwoodhotels.com/westin.
Barranco: Hotel B
This boutique property bills itself as an arts hotel, and the collection on its walls rivals that of the many galleries found just outside its doors in hip Barranco. The quirky furnishings and up-and-coming neighborhood attract an adventurous but well-heeled crowd; make sure you check out the trendy bar and restaurant located off the hotel's lobby. Sáenz Peña 204; hotelb.pe.
WHERE TO EAT
Al Toke Pez (Angamos Este 886; Surquillo)
Astrid y Gaston (Av Paz Soldan 290; San Isidro)
Central (Calle Santa Isabel 376; Miraflores)
El Pan De La Chola (Av Mariscal La Mar 918; Miraflores)
Photos: Instagram: @luismiguelpayet / @sarahbearclaw