Back in Cusco for a month, I was on a mission to explore the current culinary scene, and to eat at every place the locals—both Peruvians and expats—recommended. And in Cusco there’s rarely a dull moment when it comes to food, be it rustic or refined. You’ll find food fairs selling rows of roasted guinea pigs and streets full of chicharronerias selling Cusco’s famed chunks of fried pork. There’s a smokehouse in San Blas with roots in Syracuse and a funky burger joint owned by Peru’s celebrity super-chef. Then, at the upper end of the scale, you’ll find Cusco’s flagship restaurants, which rank among the very best in Peru.
Tony Dunnell is a freelance writer living and traveling in Peru since 2009.
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The Sunday Gastronomic Fair (Or Any Other Food Fair)
Food fairs happen frequently in Cusco, drawing together cooks from restaurants across Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Granted, some food stands look like a scene from a Boschian nightmare, with baked guinea pigs hugging each other atop large loops of offal sausage. But if that doesn't put you off, food fairs like the one on Plaza San Francisco, which takes place most Sundays, are perfect for sampling the traditional dishes of Cusco. To taste a real local classic, order chiriuchu, a plate piled high with some—or more likely all—of the following: guinea pig, chalona (lamb jerky), chicken, sausage, a slice of cheese, a torreja (a type of omelet), seaweed and fish eggs, all on a bed of corn.
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Ask a local where to go for your fried pork fix and they'll probably send you to Pampa del Castillo, a street two blocks south off the Plaza de Armas that leads to the Qurikancha, the most important temple of the Inca Empire. Pampa del Castillo is lined with chicharronerias, small restaurants that sell plates of chicharrón: chunks of pork that are first braised and then fried in their own fat until crispy outside. Opened in 1977 and named after the Peruvian national soccer team that competed honorably in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, Los Mundialistas is a mildly fútbol-themed chicharroneria that takes real pride in its pork. Keeping with tradition, the chicharrón is accompanied by a golden roast potato, oversized mote corn kernels, and a red onion and hierba buena salad.
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For family-style cooking in Cusco, head to a traditional quinta or picanteria. These old-school restaurants aren't sophisticated, but they serve huge plates of no-nonsense food better than anyone. Quinta Waly, eight blocks west of the Plaza de Armas, is not for your average tourist: the waitresses are shy around foreign faces, the customers are all local and you'll probably see a dog or two lying patiently beneath the tables. The blackboard menu is loaded with highland classics, including chicharrón, oven-baked guinea pig, pork chops, grilled heart, and sarsa de patita (pork leg salad). Ask about the chicharrón and the friendly owner might set you straight: "You can get chicharrón anywhere in Cusco; we specialize in chancho al horno (oven roasted pork)." Heed her words: the roast pork, accompanied by an olive-and-egg spaghetti mix with a green huacatay sauce on the side, is a feast fit for Inca kings. (Note: For a more tourist-friendly quinta, try Quinta Eulalia at Choqechaka 384).
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Cusco has good options for tourists missing a taste of home, including Korma Sutra for curries and Taco Mania for Mexican food (both, like Cuse, located in the San Blas district). But Cuse Smokehouse really knocks it out of the park with its barbequed meats, sandwiches and burgers, appealing to more locals than you'd think. Cody Fisher, the Syracuse-born head chef and owner of Cuse, smokes all the meat for his small but cozy restaurant in a carob-wood smoker for extra flavor. Try the pork ribs, dry-rubbed and smoked for seven hours: perfect for a cold night in Cusco.
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Peru has never been a great country for burger fans, but Peruvian celebrity-chef Gastón Acurio is looking to rectify that situation with his new chain, Papacho's. Funky and informal, gourmet but affordable, Papacho's serves burgers made using the best beef from Peru's prime ranching region, Oxapampa (founded by German settlers in the late-1800s). Some burgers have a Peruvian twist, be it the addition of anticucho sauce, salsa criolla or hot rocoto peppers. For the more adventurous, there's an alpaca burger with spicy uchucuta sauce. As the restaurant's playful tagline states: "Todo puede ser hamburguesable" ("Everything can be hamburgered").
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Is there a better place to enjoy a meal in Cusco than from the rooftop terrace at Marcelo Batata? Probably not. On a sunny day overlooking the ceramic-tile roofs of Cusco, the spires of cathedrals and churches rising up between them, the only thing that could ruin the vibe would be a subpar meal or snooty service. Neither will be an issue at Marcelo Batata, a gem of a restaurant owned by one of Cusco's top chefs, Erick Paz Gallegos. Try the causa de trucha as a starter, a perfect spin on the Peruvian classic causa rellena, but with chunks of smoked trout sitting on the traditional base of papa amarilla (yellow potato), all surrounded by drops of Andean lake caviar. Follow it up with the charbroiled alpaca tenderloin with an ají amarillo quinotto (and maybe a couple of premium pisco shots).
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Uchu, like Marcelo Batata, is another masterstroke from chef Erick Paz Gallegos. A fun but sophisticated Peruvian steakhouse, Uchu is the place to go for stone-cooked steaks, including beef, alpaca and lamb tenderloins, as well as chicken, mahi-mahi, shrimp and sausages. If you can't decide, choose one of the combos; for meat-eaters, the "Loco Carnes" dish, with 4-ounce chunks of alpaca, lamb and beef served on a sizzling stone and accompanied by fries and outstanding dipping sauces, is one of the best dishes in Cusco.
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What will it be? Tapas in the bar area beneath the wooden beams and the chandelier-like hanging bunches of dried ají peppers? Or a more formal affair, ossobuco in a black beer and onion sauce, perhaps, in the elegant dining room? These are the kind of choices you'll be faced with at Cicciolina, a restaurant of effortless sophistication and charm that attracts the well-heeled tourist. And while it may look expensive, most of the main courses at Cicciolina are less than $15 USD. For tapas, of which there are more than 12 types, there's nothing else quite like it in Cusco.