Two families of nearly a dozen members each take up impossibly long tables on either end of the room that transform this hallway-shaped restaurant into a cozy enclave. Lines of wine glasses tinted neon yellow with Inca Kola and shiny bowls filled with purple rolls add splashes of color to the white tablecloths. Julio Marin, the owner and head chef at Quechua, silently works the room delivering freshly prepared ceviches and plates overflowing with fried calamari.
It’s early evening on a Monday night in an uncharacteristically quiet section of Abasto. The restaurant is located in the middle of a pedestrian street that juts out from the eponymously named shopping center. Blocking the view are two anonymous bars that would feel more at home along Caminito: a loud Brazilian picada bar and touristy looking ‘Argentine grill’. Quechua’s facade is painted ocean blue with teams of fish, octopus and crab; it feels like a mirage considering its surroundings and a notably different option amongst the uniform pollerias that make up much of the neighborhood.
“Restaurants in Peru are all specialized. You focus on ceviche or chifa or maybe pollo a las brasas. Here the restaurants are all mixed and the menus tend to lump everything together,” explains Marin, “I always wanted to open a restaurant where the main focus was ceviches. If Argentina is the cradle of beef, Peru is cradle of fish.”
Marin was born in the Southern Central region of Apurímac, a mountainous area on the edge of the Amazons where food lends itself to its Quechuan and Aymara traditions. At 8, his family moved to Lima, where the food is a complex landscape of African, European, Chinese, Japanese and indigenous cultures. Nearly a decade ago, the family settled in Buenos Aires, where he worked for a number of years at the now defunct Puerto Madero restaurant La Rosa Nautica. At Quechua, he welds together all these styles—the Limeña love for fish, Andina attention to native herbs and peppers and Rosa Nautica’s attention to high end details over the dive bar attitude of the average Abasto restaurant.
Although the menu offers a handful of creole dishes, the focus is on traditional ceviches and modern nikkei. The seafood and shellfish used for individual dishes depends on whatever Marin is able to find fresh in the market, often a difficult task. Three times a week, Marin is joined with his brothers Don Marco and Rafael to scour fish markets in Barrio Chino, vendors at the Central Market and selections brought over by regular fish mongers to grab the freshest catch preferring fresh catches from Mar del Plata.
A slew of ceviche dishes begin arriving to the table. Sole is cut into cubes and quickly marinated with generous squirts of lime juice as orders arrive. The difference is palatable. Although I am a frequent and happy diner at Once bodegones like La Conga and El Sabor Norteño, I always get the feeling that my ceviche is being served out of a bucket. The texture is less consistent, with buttery morsels mixed in with chewier slices, and the leche de tigre has often lost its zest.
“In Peru, thanks to Gaston Acurio and places like Central, there are a lot of native ingredients or old dishes that we are beginning to appreciate again,” continues Marin, “We have similar goals, in our own small way, to play with some dishes and ingredients that you don’t find as easily.”
The ceviche clásico is a satisfying mix of lime, cilantro and acidic red onions. The ceviche carretillero adds a touch of aji amarillo to the marinade and comes with crunchy calamari tempura and glazed sweet potatoes. The sweetness of the potatoes settled at the tip of the tongue and made the explosion of lime more robust. The calamari wiped up all the extra juices. Ceviche frito was a pleasant surprise. The ceviche is quickly marinated before being lightly battered and deep fried. The leche de tigre is reserved for a sauce that is given an additional kick with an extra splash of orange.
Sorpresas de langostino are moist shrimp are wrapped in a tangle of wanton noodles and fried; they are served with a sweet sauce similar to soy to wet the crunchy noodles. I would have preferred them with a creamier hot sauce. Calamari tentacles get the deep fry treatment as well, but the result was a tough texture bordering too close to rubbery. Another notable fish dish was the smoked fish pate served with warm pillows of cacao rolls at the start of the meal. To drink, quilmes is served in frosty glasses. I opted for a saccharine sweet mango smoothie.
For creole dishes, a chaufon de mariscos was the most recognizable and also the easiest to forget. Rice is fried with eggs to a light golden brown and a mix of green onions, calamari, shrimp and mussels. Chaufa is normally amongst my favorite dishes, an open invitation to a long post meal nap that leaves a buttery flavor along the lips long after the meal is over. This was a bit to tame, only rescued by generous drops of a red chile sauce packed full of spicy seeds. The house favorite, duck braised in a cilantro based sauce, was worth returning for. Duck breast is cooked low for four hours until the meat tears off the bone. The sauce was light and savory adding just enough flavor to the tender game of the meat. It was served with rice cooked with the duck broth, a much more satisfying dish than the chaufon.
“The guys that worked next door kept popping their head in. They weren’t really sure if they should actually come in and eat. I think they came in initially to be neighborly. They come in all the time now and always order ceviche,” the otherwise even-tempered Marin can’t help but crack a smile as he tells me this.
Pasaje Carlos Gardel 3163, Abasto
Sunday through Thursday from 12:00 to 11:45PM
Friday & Saturday from 12:00 to 2:00am