Here’s a Peruvian experience I highly recommend: Eating at a huarique or picantería.
Huarique describes those little family restaurants that, without much fanfare, offer traditional home-cooked meals using recipes that have been handed down through generations. Dishes are made to order, presented in a simple way, but are fresh, have intense flavors, textures, and aromas.
While huarique is a Spanish word, it actually derives from the Quechua language (spelled, warique).
Quechua, the ancient language of the Incas is still spoken today by the indigenous people of the Americas, particularly in the Andean towns of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador.
In Quechua, “wa” describes things that are unknown, hidden, secret. “Rique” derives from “rocqro,” which means stew. A warique, is a hidden place that serves food.
Following hundreds of years of tradition and culture, huariques in Peru are still alive and well. For years (after the decimation of the Incas and after Colonialism), these places have existed almost in secret (think of a speakeasy). People only knew about them from word-of-mouth. Today, with the boom of Peruvian gastronomy, these places have been rescued and have become better known. New places have also opened up, replicating the history, tradition, and essence of the original huariques.
My first huarique: LA PICANTERÍA (Chef: Héctor Solís)
Knowing that I’m on a culinary quest while in Peru, my cousin took me to La Picantería in Surquillo, which is representative of a typical huarique that you would find in Chiclayo, where my father (and my cousin) were born, and arguably, a town where you’ll find some of the best food in Peru.
La Picantería, aside from qualifying as a huarique, is also representative of a picantería.
A picantería – a typical eatery born in the countryside of Peru. Before the advent of the commercial restaurant as we know it today, picanterías were known as improvised dining rooms in private homes opening their doors for the field workers in the area. Clients would walk through the kitchen and see and taste what was being cooked before ordering. (Picante means spicy food, although not all dishes served at a picantería are necessarily spicy).
You’ll find La Picantería in Surquillo, in a working class neighborhood. The old casona has been remodeled and stands out as a well-kept Spanish house in an area where most houses have been neglected. As you walk in, there’s a small reception area, with a cool and inviting bar to the right.
The fun bar offers great drinks that you can have while you wait for your spot in the dining room. At the bar, you’ll see all of the different kinds of homemade chicha de jora. Chichas like these are cloudy, somewhat sour, and mildly carbonated.
Chicha de Jora is a fermented corn drink made with jora corn grown in the Andes. This was considered a sacred drink used by the Incas in ritual ceremonies as far back as 5000 years ago. Chicha de jora is still consumed today in all Andean towns, especially during important cultural festivities and special occasions. It is also considered a key ingredient in marinades and soup stocks in Peruvian cuisine. Tradition requires that chicha be made by women, and never by men, so as not to offend the Apus (mountain gods) and Mamasara, the corn goddess.
At La Picantería, the chicha is fermented with different fruit flavors – you can order a flight to try a few – all are homemade following age-old recipes. They are known to be excellent. You can also order a chilcano, a drink made with Pisco, lime, and ginger ale, which I will have to try next time, as I’ve heard they’re the house specialty.
To the left, as you pass by the large cross with Christ’s face on the top (yes, weird but cool), is a medium-sized open space, with communal picnic tables, red and white plastic tablecloths and all.
Anchoring the space is a large, open kitchen where you’ll see the chef and cooks in action.
On the wall, there is a blackboard listing the catch of the day – the fish, that changes daily, is also displayed so you can see what you’ll be eating. As the made-to-order dishes come out, the staff will cross off or erase the what’s no longer available.
La Picantería is a perfect choice to taste the sazón (flavors, ingredients, and seasonings) of the north: Ceviches, jaleas, sudados, arroces – all dishes are meant to be shared. I’d describe the food as rustic, yet so beautifully cooked and presented that it could belong to any gourmet restaurant in the world. First, you pick your fish (by type and weight), and then you elect the kind of preparation you want. You can also order the dish of the day from the menu, which includes chicken, beef, and pork options.
To start, we ordered traditional ceviche (raw fish cooked only with lime juice) and it was spectacular. The fish was fresh, with a perfect balance of salt and acidity, the onions were crisp, as they should be, and the dish, as a whole, had the right amount of heat.
For the second course, my cousin ordered a grilled fish cooked inside corn leaves and seasoned with a sauce of ají amarillo – a native Peruvian yellow hot pepper that is usually blanched before using it in the preparation, so as to diminish the level of heat, leaving you with a perfect flavor and spice that is very pleasing to the palate. I was delighted with this dish, and I have to say, this could easily be the best grilled fish I’ve ever had. It was perfectly cooked, flaky on the outside and juicy and tender on the inside.
Because you’re sitting very close to your neighbors, it is easy to begin conversations with total strangers, which is expected and commonplace at a huarique or picantería. The people sitting next to us had ordered a flight of chichas. They offered me a taste of each of them – and while I’m adventurous and keep an open mind, I wasn’t crazy about them. Mind you, this is a personal opinion, as those who do like chicha swear by them.
For dessert, I had a marciano, which means “martian,” (I have no idea why). These are also called “chupetes,” and when I saw them I was immediately reminded of long summer days as a kid in Lima, when the lady yelling “marcianos!” would walk along the beach carrying a cooler full of colorful frozen chupetes, and we would run to her like maniacs, begging our mothers to buy us a few.
Chupetes have been homemade for ages by moms and grandmas. They’re made with fruit and milk; then set to freeze in long and narrow plastic bags. Typically, they’re sold out of the kitchen window and around the neighborhood.
And that’s all, folks! Discovering huariques (and picanterias) will definitely be one of the things I will greatly miss when I go back home. If you live or visit Peru, be adventurous, get off the beaten restaurant path, and go in search of your own little spot.
La Picantería is a favorite with many locals (and some tourists are discovering this place, too). Go for lunch, around 12:30 pm, but be prepared to wait, as the place gets packed. The service is excellent, and I promise you will not be disappointed.
La Picanteria’s address: Francisco Moreno 388, Surquillo. Phone: 241-6676. Hours: Tues-Sun, 11:00 am to 5:00 pm (breakfast and lunch)