Thursday, December 19, 2013

Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Back to Puro Peru

On the Monday before my return to the US, Willy and Elba treated me to lunch at a spot I hadn't been to in some years: the Puro Peru buffet in Barranco.

In the US, all-you-can-eat buffet lunch establishments tend to specialize in "home-style" "comfort foods".  In Lima, they do as well, but Peruvian food can be a far cry from the macaroni-and-cheese and baked chicken that are buffet staples here.  Thus, whereas buffets in the US tend to get a bad rap, in Lima they are often much appreciated for the variety and quality of the food; and, among them, Puro Peru is a stand-out.

The place has its origins, I am told, in another buffet establishment -the Hawaii- which used to be located in Chorrillos.   It seems that the partnership that built the place did not prosper and partners split up.  

One partner left and established Puro Peru in Barranco, where he had the advantage of being more accessible to diners from Central Lima. (The other, closed Hawaii and move it to an old cockfight ring in Barranco, and even closer to central Lima than Puro Peru.  To attract even more customers they offered free beer with lunch.  That place has now closed, and the Hawaii has moved to a more central, and accessible location in Barranco.)

Of course, it wasn't simply location that attracted customers to Puro Peru, but the better ambiance, great service, and even better and more varied foods offered. 

Willy likes to tell of a time that he took several foreign business contacts -high-ups in the institution he worked at- to Puro Peru.  One of them, it turns out, was aHindu of Indian descent and vegetarian.  Willy was worried about finding him suitable fare, but he needn't have worried.  As Willy was talking to the waiter about it, the fellow returned to the table, beaming over a pile of vegetables, fruits, and salads that he had gleaned from the various stations.  On the way out of Puro Peru all three visitors -the vegetarian included- thanked Willy profusely for taking them there as, they said, in all their travels on business they had never and nowhere eaten so well, with such variety and quality, as they just had.

There is a salad bar, a dessert station, a grilling station where meats and sausages are cooked as you ask for them.  There is also a sushi station -which is very popular-, a full cocktail bar -for those indispensable pisco sours!

There is a station offering Peruvian staples such as rice, chicharrones, beans, and stews.

Chicharrones (pork fried in its own fat)

Rocoto relleno (meat-stuffed hot peppers)

Another nice touch is that Puro Peru also has a station where the staff will prepare dishes to order - pasta, lomo saltado, chow mein, Chinese fried rice, sautees, and more.

Of course, the star of the place is the seafood station, which offers raw and cooked fish and shellfish dishes, and a variety of cebiches.

Chita a la meuniere
Cebiche with yellow hot pepper sauce
Mixed seafood cebiche

Honestly, I could spend all day just at the seafood bar if I had to, without uttering a single word of complaint.

I am specially fond of those scallops!  Live scallops are awfully hard to come by in the US, and we never get served scallops up here with the roe still attached.   These guys are so fresh that they taste of the sea!

The raw bar, offering scallops on the half-shell

I enjoyed a number of them, even though a couple of years ago I got horribly sick quite likely from eating one at the vastly inferior buffet at the Rustica restaurant on the Costa Verde, which led, about ten hours later, to projectile vomiting and me lying on the cold tile floor of the bathroom while my abdominal muscles uncramped.  (I'll never eat at a Rustica again, if I can avoid it.  They aren't known for quality anyway.)

In the middle of the meal at Puro Peru I had to disappear into the bathroom for a long time.  A while ago I had bought a new belt, and it was the only one that I brought along for the trip.  It turns out that the belt isn't leather, but is synthethic with some sort of closed-cell foam inside.  The buckle I have on it has some little teeth that dig into and grip the belt material (it's meant so that it can be removed or reversed).  Over time -like a week!- the foam material, however, gives way, the teeth rip out of the foam, and the belt comes apart.  Well, that happened at the restaurant when I sat down with my camera in my pocket.  With a pocket knife or scissors and a hammer it its easy enough to fix, but I had none of those available to me there, so I had to fiddle with it for a while before I could get it to grip and stay.

I had told Willy and Elba the Rustica scallop story and they grew concerned as the minutes ticked by and I didn't return from the bathroom.   They feared I had gotten sick again from eating scallops.  We all got a good laugh when I told them what the issue had really been -even though theirs was tinged with relief, and mine with embarrassment (and the fear that the belt would give out again when I had my hands full and my pants would drop in the middle of the restaurant!)

It had been several years since I had eaten at Puro Peru.  I think that the last time I was there it was with my mom, so that tells you how long ago that was.

Mom was really impressed with the place, and never hesitated to recommend it to people planning to visit Lima.  She said that there one could a really good idea of what Peruvian food was about, and "get so much delicious food in one place".     I don't think that she'd have been disappointed if she'd been along on this visit.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Lima Book Fair

On the Saturday after my birthday party and just before I returned to the US, I made it to the Lima Book Fair, which this year was in its 18th installment.

When Jacho and I arrived there was a big line to get in.  We were impressed that so many people, specially young people, were so eager to get in, particularly given that it was only the second day of the fair and there was yet another fortnight in which to visit it.  It turned out, however, that there was talk being given by Peruvian rock singer Pedro Suarez Vertiz at the presentation of his book, Yo, Pedro, which occasioned the long lines outside and, again, inside the tent!

Unlike other times, when I would scour the fair from end to end, and return on multiple occasions, this time around -due to matters of space and luggage weight- I went only the one time and targeted my shopping toward a few key stands and a predetermined wish-list of books I had been holding off on buying until the fair. 

Among them:
  • Memorias de un soldado desconocido by Lurgio Gavilan
  • Historia de la corrupcion en el Peru by Alfonzo Quiroz
  • Los Quipucamayos by Frank Salomon

I was also pleased to be able to pick up a copy of Sombras del Imperio: La nobleza indigena del Cuzco, 1750-1825, a translation of Shadows of Empire: The Indian Nobility of Cusco, 1750-1825, a book by Reed College professor David T. Garrett, whom I had heard speak on the subject at a talk at the Alianza Francesa a few weeks earlier.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Well, I'm back in the US.  I got back on the 24th and then went camping.

I'll add a few more posts about my trip to Peru in the next few days or weeks -as I get over a cold-, before sending this blog into it's customary winter dormancy.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Protest downtown

Tonight I joined thousands of others downtown in a protest against the recent actions of the Peruvian Congress.   On the 18th, the nation watched via a live TV feed as the four parties with the largest share of representatives in Congress, which included the party of former president and dictator, Alberto Fujimori (who is serving prison time for graft, corruption, and human rights abuses), and that of the current president, Ollanta Humala- consumated a political deal between them to get their members elected to head the Central Reserve Bank, the Constitutional Court, and the Public Defender's Office.

The four parties -Gana Perú, Fuerza Popular, Perú Posible, and Alianza Por el Gran Cambio- pushed through a vote for the candidates in a block, instead of on a one-by-one basis, as required by the Congressional regulations in place since 1975.   As a result, the candidates were selected based, not on personal and professional qualifications, but on quotas set in backroom partisan wheeling and dealing.  In fact when one Congresswoman tried to abstain, she was browbeaten into voting in favor, on the grounds that she "had to agree" as her party had a "political agreement" to which she was supposedly bound.   To make things worse -with the exception of those elected to the Central Reserve Bank- the elected were perhaps among the worst candidates, lacking in relevant experience, having conflicts of interest, and having been connected to or defended human rights abuses and corrupt practices.

The people's rejection was immediate and loud.   Almost every newspaper, magazine, newsprogram, NGO, labor union, political movement, student group, and others spoke out against the repartija - the divvying up- in Congress.  That very night there were spontaneous protests in Lima.

There was another demo called for tonight as a show of rejection and a means of pressuring those elected into stepping aside, and Congress into approving an extraordinary session for Wednesday to anul the election and hold another, clean one.

Well, I'm down to my last two days here.

In about a half hour I'll be off downtown, to a demo at the Plaza San Martin in protest against a bad vote in Congress which resulted in some very questionable appointments to high legal offices, and in support of a motion to annul that vote and hold a new one which will elect the candidates on an individual basis -not in a group- and based on individual merit -not on backroom political deals.

I've started packing this morning, then went to lunch with Willy and Elba at Puro Peru, and then a quick shopping stop in Polvos Azules, before coming home for a rest before heading downtown.

Family lunch in Pachacámac

Yesterday the family headed out to Pachacámac for a lunch in the countryside, at one of the many restaurantes campestres that have set up shop in the area.

On the way we stopped at small roadside restaurant called "El Paso Obligado" -basically, the obligatory stop- that is known for breads and turnovers that it sells, which are made with a variety of fillings -olives, cheese, pastry cream, etc.- and baked in a wood-fired oven.

Jacho, Diego and I had thought of perhaps returning to La Casa de Don Cucho, but based on friends' reviews, we all headed instead to the nearby Chaxras restaurant. (The name "chacra" - the "x" is to be pronounced as a /k/- is a Qechua word that has been adopted into Peruvian Spanish, and refers to a small peasant farm field.) 

Chaxras bills itself as an "ecological" restaurant.   In Peru that term is used to denote that something is organically or sustainably grown, or simply less harmful for the environment -much as the term "green" is used in the US.  It is sometimes applied to vegetables grown hydroponically, although the "greenness" of water-intensive hydroponics in a desert can be questioned.

In Chaxras' case -according to the restaurant's website- the term refers to its use of recycled materials in its building, its organic garden, and its commitment to organic, locally-sourced produce.

In addition to the restaurant, Chaxras has games -as is usual for this sort of establishment- but also a small zoo, with rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens, and a parrot that says hola!, whistles, and imitates cattle and horses.

The restaurant and its grounds are quite pleasant and present a modern, open, well-kept appearance.  There is a covered dining area, as well as tables set under ramadas on the lawn, a bar, open kitchen, and a cooking pit for the meats.

In the pit there were, when we arrived, some slabs of pork that had been slowly cooking over a low fire for four hourse, two smoker ovens for pork and chicken prepared al cilindro, and a pit holding a pachamanca.

A pachamanca is a traditional Andean way of cooking food for a crowd by constructing an earth oven by placing the foods in a pit with heated rocks, and covering the lot with soil to hold in the heat for a few hours.

We arrived in time to observe the staff opening up the pachamanca.

In the Andes usually green alfalfa or grass, combined with fresh aromatic herbs, are used, but in Chaxras' pachamanca the food was wrapped in bijao leaves.  Bijao is a jungle plant and its leaves are used to wrap foods in Amazonian cuisine, but its use and flavour are not part of the Andean spectrum.

The pachamanca was good for what it was, but it was not what a family of Ayacuchanos would expect, flavourwise, in a pachamanca, so some were disappointed with it.

I enjoyed mine, however.

Lechon al palo: spit-roasted pork
The other food was also competently prepared, but was not traditionally-prepared, but a more modern, novo/fusion sort of cuisine.  That is fine for an urban restaurant -in which context no one would likely have complained- but it is a far cry from what one expects and seeks from restaurantes campestres, which is traditional Andean or criollo dishes prepared and presented in the traditional way.  

On the other hand, Chaxras -fairly or not- also suffered from being judged in comparison to La Casa de Don Cucho, which is natural as we had passed up that establishment -which is half a block's distance before Chaxras on the same dirt road- to come there.

None of that is to say that we didn't like the place.   We all enjoyed a surprising cocktail they offered: the Chaxras chilcano.  A chilcano is a drink made of pisco, simple syrup, lime juice, and ginger ale.  The Chaxras house version ommitted the simple syrup, but added a touch of chicha de jora -Andean corn beer- and cooked red and white quinoa grains.

We all  also enjoyed the setting, which we thought was very attractive, and the kids had fun in the play area.   

Even the those off-put by the food might have been mollified if the service had been up to snuff.

Unfortunately, however, not only did some orders take overly long to come out, but the wait staff often appeared confused at where to deliver  plates and drinks brought to their stations by the runners, and dishes of food were left to sit at the wait station while they sorted things out -not a good thing under any circumstances, but less so when diners are eager to get warm food after sitting outdoors on a cold day.  They got some of our orders -specially drink orders- wrong.

Did we have a good time? Yes, overall we did ...

.... even if we did have to change a tire on one of the cars in order to get home, which was no one's fault.  But it is not likely we would return.  I doubt I would make the trip out to Pachacamac again to go to Chaxras.

However, if I had young kids, I would consider it.  There is lots to keep them occupied -climbing structures, trampolines, a zip line, carts, the mini-zoo, etc- and they can do most of it within sight of one's tables instead of off to the side or in the back as in most of these country restaurants, and on a warm day sitting under the canopies, sipping cocktails and artisanal beers could be quite nice.

Besides, that parrot and those chickens are pretty cool.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

El Bolivariano

On Friday Willy took me to lunch at one of Pueblo Libre district's old-school haunts, the El Bolivariano restaurant.  El Bolivariano ranks as another of Lima's "classic" eateries and is many people's favourite place for classic criollo cuisine - which makes it all the more surprising that I had never been there despite hearing and reading about the place for so long!

The ambiance, is of course, old-school limeño, the place being located in an old house, and filled with antiques and old photographs. 

The service was curteous, attentive, friendly, and very smooth.   That comes, of course, from it being provided by older, professional wait staff, and not just a bunch of kids trying to get by or doing it only because it's the family's place.

The food, was very good.  I would say that one would be hard pressed to find a place with better or as good versions of them, but that would only be true anywhere but in this city.  In any case, these were comfort food done right -the tomatoes in my fish dish were peeled and seeded!- and who can ask for more from an old-school restaurant?

I'm very glad I finally went there.

Papa a la huancaína: potatoes in spicy cheese sauce

Patita con maní: pig's trotter in peanut sauce

Chorrillos-style fish: fried fish smothered in onions, tomatoes, and chiles

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Birthday party

We had a birthday get-together for me the other night on Willy's terrace.  Willy and I went shopping that morning in the Jesus Maria market for meats and other items.  We supplemented those with some cheeses that I had brought from the US for the occasion.

Most of the cousins and aunts and uncles were able to attend, and we had a really nice time.

I tried to take pictures, but mostly the lighting was poor so only a few turned out, and those were of things that happened to be essentially immobile at the that instant!