It is 5pm on a Tuesday and La Conga, a Peruvian cantina and cevicheria just steps away from Plaza Once, is bustling with more than a hundred diners. Salsa music echoes loudly throughout the restaurant as a team of waiters quickly glide past one another with plates of papa a la huancaína, jalea and chicharron stacked impossibly high up either forearm. Behind the register, a small team of cooks man the skewers where dozens of whole chickens cook in a rotisserie oven and another feeds the deep fryer a constant supply of french fries.
When I called the night before to ask when would be the quietest moment to stop by and arrange an interview, Franco, who greeted me in a rose colored floral print button-down and half a dozen gold chains, told me quite simply, “there are no quiet moments here”. He wasn’t lying.
On any night of the week there is a line of at least a dozen people, but probably more, clustered outside the restaurant which seats two hundred and fifty. On Easter Sunday there was a line that wrapped halfway around the block, explains head manager Julio Cesar Rodriguez, who owes the restaurant’s successful twelve year run to their triple threat combo of “friendly service, quality ingredients and satisfactory prices.”
I would argue that it is their ceviche, which comes flying out of the kitchen stacked tall at lightening fast speed. The ceviche de pescado is mountainous both in size and flavor — a simple mix of white fish, cilantro and lime topped with crunchy red onion, hominy and salty cancha tostada (toasted corn) for a mélange of textures and flavors.
Rodriguez skillfully refuses to take the bait and remains mum as I try to get him to brag about the food, a long list of Central and Northern Peruvian dishes. “People return over and over again because here you eat like you would in Peru, like part of the family.” If he does brag about anything, it is that with two hundred different dishes on the menu, I could eat something new everyday for the remainder of the calendar year.
Good hospitality is a point of pride and a lesson learned by Gastón Acurio, the Peruvian restaurateur known locally for his Palermo Hollywood restaurant La Mar Cebichería, who trained Rodriguez briefly at a restaurant in Lima. “The server is as important as the cook. You can have a delicious dish made with love and care by the chef, but if it is served with a bad attitude it’s ruined. If you serve people with kindness, people will eat happily.”
At nearby Carlitos, the feeling is mutual. I have been frequenting the restaurant since 2010 when I lived just two blocks away and strictly upheld the one meal Sunday diet. Although waiters have frequently changed — or they are promoted to the coveted pollero position—they all quickly learn your face and regular order. Their menu del día — an inexpensive lunchtime dish that comes with a bowl of soup, main dish and drink — compete with the best in the neighborhood.
The seco de carne, slow roasted beef served with rice, creamy beans and red onion with lime, is delicious albeit generally slightly undercooked. For those in groups or lone diners ready to nap at their table, the rocoto relleno is a great starter — spicy rocoto chili peppers stuffed with slow-cooked beef and topped with enough cheese to give a porteño pizza a run for its money.
The real hero here, however, is the pollo a la brasa. Nearly every Peruvian restaurant in the area serves rotisserie chicken alongside enormous plates of french fries and a simple salad, but Carlitos has the best. On the weekends, you’ll be hard pressed to find a table that isn’t chomping down on an order of chicken.
Over at RAWA, the sister restaurant of Congreso favorite Chan Chan, Acurio’s name comes up again. “He has had an effect that goes beyond his own restaurant,” starts Ángel Uribullo, who opened RAWA — Quechuan for ‘to light a fire’ — with his wife Maria Capristano. They opened the restaurant three years ago because she wanted a place with her name on the deed.
At RAWA they’ve replicated the kitsch familial vibes of Chan Chan; her nephew and brother work in the kitchen and she makes a point to note that she can only cook because she learned at her “husband’s school” which she tells me with a giggle. Ángel is a fatherly figure with a dad stache, striped button down and genuine smile. Before opening Chan Chan, he worked for twelve years as a chef at the other Congreso classic, Status, and thanks men like Acurio for putting Peruvian food on the map, “At first it was mostly Peruvians eating at Chan Chan, but by the time we opened RAWA the clientele was a mix of locals, Peruvians [sic] tourists.” These days he mostly cooks for his family, many traditional dishes from his native Trujillo not found on the menu and spends his days bouncing between restaurants testing dishes.
Although the most ordered plate is the three ceviche tasting dish, Uribullo has a talent for the Northern Peruvian criolla recipes that draw influence from Spanish and Chinese immigration that began underneath Spanish colonialism. The pork chicharron are meaty short ribs that respect the integrity of the pork — they are moist and tender but don’t fall right off the bone. The pork tamales have the consistency and color of a pumpkin pie with soft but slightly seared pork and olives. Douse everything in a buttery lemon mayonnaise or the rocoto salsa — a layered hot sauce that hits the back of your throat and sticks around.
La Mar could not feel any further away from the rest of the pack. In this renovated mansion in Palermo Hollywood ceviche and whole fried fish are served on designer ceramic dishes to neighborhood ladies who lunch and suits trying to impress potential business partners. But, “At the heart of it all, this is a neighborhood cevicheria. People come here and think we are creating this elevated Peruvian fusion food, but everything you find here can be found on the streets of Lima,” explains Anthony Vazquez, head chef and Gastón Acurio’s right hand man. If that is the case, I need to move to Lima.
The ceviche is the best you will find in Buenos Aires, and it is because Acurio and his team of chefs have mastered it to a fine art — the delicate balance of citrus and spice to the best way to slice each cut of fish for the right bite. There are nine different ‘cebiches‘ on the menu and all a far cry from the passion fruit or mango ridden fusion dishes that riddle many Palermo cartas. At La Mar, it is about sticking to Lima traditions and paying tribute to the diversity of Lima’s vibrant food, whether it be in the street, a neighborhood cantina or a high-end restaurant.
Not to be missed is the selection of whole fish. The mero is a fried river fish with a flakey crust on the outside and juicy white fish on the inside doused in a subtly sweet nikkei sauce. The chaufa aeropuerto, fried rice served in a hot pot similar to a Korean bibimbap, comes with a top layer of egg and shrimp. Min pao inspired sanguichitos are influenced by Limean street food, much of which has been shaped by Chinese immigrants that arrived as slaves as far back as four centuries ago, and give this city’s recent obsession with pork buns a Peruvian version with toppings like chicharron (order that one) or battered shrimp drowning in yellow huacatay salsa or ocopa sauce, a creamy mixture of queso fresco, peanuts and crackers.
Although the differences are plenty, one thing ties them all together. And it is not just the salsa music blasting over the loudspeaker, which according to Vazquez is a defining factor, “A cook in Peru isn’t any good if he doesn’t learn how to dance salsa first.” It is the sense of family found in the informal restaurants of Once to the high end eateries of Hollywood, where everyone is welcome, regulars and newbies alike.