But most tourists don’t visit Lima for the sushi and dim sum. Despite the growing number of upscale establishments with international roots, Lima is still best known for its cevicherias, humble shops serving multiple varieties of the country’s most famous dish: raw fish marinated in lime or lemon juice with slivered red onions and aji chile peppers.
Most restaurants featuring comida criolla, or traditional Peruvian dishes, feature at least one ceviche recipe. At these establishments, you’ll also often find tacu-tacu, patties of rice and beans that are lightly fried to mimic the economical scrapings from the bottom of the cooking pan, a preparation believed to have originated with African slaves in Peru during colonial times.
We tried both at Bar Restaurant Cordano, just off the Spanish building-lined, palm-treed Plaza Mayor and across the street from the magnificent presidential palace. The building itself is more than 100 years old, and the country’s National Institute of Culture considers it a historic monument.
The kitchen’s ceviche de corvina, prepared with white sea bass, was presented with the traditional accoutrements: crunchy roasted corn kernels called cancha, a slice of corn cob and a hunk of sweet potato.
As we slurped down seafood in the old-timey dining room, my sister-in-law caught me attempting to sop up the ceviche’s limey, sinus-clearing sauce, first with my tacu-tacu, then with my fork — both losing endeavors, in case you’re wondering — and handed me a large serving spoon.
“That’s why it’s here,” she said, explaining that Peruvians call the marinade leche de tigre, or tiger’s milk, and it’s often served as a standalone shot.
It would be a shame, we were told, to leave Lima without sampling anticuchos, marinated beef hearts served on skewers. The low-key La Panka in the Surquillo district serves an excellent rendition that grabbed top honors in last year’s Mistura, Peru’s national food festival.
The rich, tender kebabs, rubbed with aji and black pepper, come with a selection of creamy, garlic- and pepper-based dipping sauces, and sent us to bed with full bellies in preparation for our early-morning flight to the Andes.
Cobblestoned Cusco offers many contrasts to the megalopolis of Lima. Once the base of the Inca Empire, the colonial city of more than 300,000 is breathtaking, literally: At more than 11,000 feet above sea level, you may find yourself short on oxygen, and mate de coca, a grassy tea made from the leaves of the coca plant, is the one beverage you should be sure to imbibe (many hotels keep some brewing at all times).
Most visitors to Cusco undertake either the four-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu or a day or overnight trip to the spectacular ruins. Those long treks don’t leave much time for fine dining, but for those with some time in the city, Andean delicacies abound; my sister-in-law’s impression was that the restaurant scene had vastly improved in the five years since her first visit.
At Greens Organic, just off Plaza de Armas, we feasted on more local ceviche, which married luscious mango, juicy pink trout fished from the local rivers and gigantic corn kernels three times the size of those found in the United States.