Who has the largest larder in the world?
Because it has the most vertical of back yards. Restaurants in Lima can get produce from 17 different altitudes, from 6 feet below the waves to 10,000 feet and more up in the Andes. You’ve got the ocean with its ice-cold Humboldt current bringing vast schools of fish up from the South Pole, you’ve got coastal deserts, fertile Andean valleys, high plains, then on the other side you’ve got the Amazon jungle.
So in Lima you can walk into what they call a huarique (cheap’n cheerful eatery) and order octopus sausage; llama jerky, camu camu (Amazon fruit), tacu tacu (seasoned canary beans and rice), maca maca (a high Andes root good for bread flour, porridge, and, hey, sexual performance); or you can order San Pedro cactus stalks (which can be hallucinogenic), or any of a zillion Peruvian fruit such as cocona, noni, pitahaya; grains such as quinoa and amaranth, and let’s not forget that staple, grilled guinea pig.
So yes, I’ve been desperate to try this food from the world’s largest larder. And when I was heading west through city heights along El Cajon Boulevard, t’other day, lo and behold, a little eatery with a big sign appeared.
“Eli’s Signature Peruvian Kitchen. Authentic Peruvian Food.”
My lucky day. I see this place is only open like Thursday and Friday, noon to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. till 5 p.m. That’s it.
But this is around one on a Thursday afternoon.
It’s kinda wedged between City Pub and the Sea Breeze Motel. An LED sign says “OPEN,” from behind window bars.
I head in, to a bright room furnished with maroon booths, tables with serious wooden chairs, white table cloths, and a couple of paintings. Gold Inca gods glare down at you. One of them has two half-crocodile underlings holding severed human heads.
First thing you notice: the place is busy. From the conversations, a lot of the customers seem to be businessmen with connections to Lima. But there are families too.
Gal comes around. Eli. She pronounces it like “Ellie.”
“My mom is the original ‘Eli,’” she says. “Elizabeth Mostacero. She opened this six months ago. It has been ha-ard work. But the community here supports us.”
She puts a big glossy menu down. “Something to drink?” she says.
Good question. They do have beer and wine, but I’m looking at the non-alcoholics because, hey, Inka Cola, Kola Inglesa, and one I’ve heard of, Chicha Morada. Plus refresco de maracuya (passion fruit pulp), and emoliente (“Seasonal drink. Healthy mix of herbs, toasted barley, flax seed and lime”). Colas are $3.45, the others, $3.95.
Gosh. Like to try the emoliente, but can’t resist the chicha morada. For starters, “chicha” (“chichiatl” in Nahuatl means “fermented water”) has come to mean any fermented drink. Chicha de jora is a kind of corn beer. The Budweiser of the Andes, since ancient times.
But chicha morada is not fermented. Menu explains it as a “favorite Peruvian drink made with purple corn, pineapple, and fruits.” It seems purple corn is really good for your health. So hey, chicha it is.
Foodwise: No sign of guinea pigs, octopus sausage, or llama jerky. And looking in vain for camu camu, tacu tacu, or maca maca. But they do have some of that famous Peruvian ceviche (“made with white fish, cooked in a lime juice, red onions, Peruvian peppers, aji lime, garnished with Peruvian corn and sweet potatoes”). Only problem: It’s $15.95, and it’s just a starter.
To get things going, I ask for humitas de choclo. (“Humitas” means “tamales,” “choclo” means “corn”). “Sweet corn tamales served with Peruvian yellow sauce,” it says. Costs $3. Almost go for chicken or beef empanadas ($3.95) too. But need space for a main.
And it is delicious. Sweet, comfort food, with that nice ooze of yellow sauce that’s peppery-spicy-cheesy. Good combo with the sweet tamal.
But now, got to get serious with a main, totally Peruvian dish. Hmm. Mains are like sautéed beef or chicken strips with onions, fries, rice ($14.95), beef stew with Peruvian beans and rice ($14.95), shredded chicken with a “nutty creamy sauce,” ($12.95), rotisserie chicken, fries or rice and side salad ($12.95), “Peruvian style” spaghetti with a pesto of spinach, basil, walnuts, cheese ($12.95).
“We have a lunch special,” says Eli. “You choose one appetizer, one of three entrées, and a dessert, for $16.95.”
Huh. I go for that papa a la huancaina (after the Andes mountain city of Huancayo), as a starter. It’s basically sliced boiled potatoes covered with a green, mild creamy cheese sauce and garnished with eggs and Peruvian olives. Normally $6.95. It’s nice. And appropriate, I’m thinking, because Incas practically invented potatoes, right?
For the main I go tilapia. It’s grilled and comes in a rich sauce of tomatoes, onions, spices, fish paste, parsley. Plus rice. Good, but nothing that screams “Inca! Peru!” to me.
I ask Eli about this when she brings me the third part of the lunch deal, a dessert of rice pudding ($4.95 as a single item).
“The thing about Peru,” she says, “is we’ve had immigrants arriving for maybe 500 years. It’s the Spanish, Italians, Chinese, Lebanese, Japanese, and others who have influenced our cuisine. Peruvian cuisine is not just Inca.”
Still, I can’t help the feeling they’re maybe soft-pedaling things for us gringo customers. Like, where are the guinea pigs?
Oh, and my ancient drink, the purple corn chicha morada? Delicious and quenching. But right now, I could do with a few gulps of the other chicha. The one they ferment.
Prices: Peruvian ceviche, $15.95; humitas de choclo (Sweet corn tamales served with Peruvian yellow sauce), $3; chicken or beef empanadas, $3.95; sautéed beef or chicken strips with onions, fries, rice, $14.95; beef stew with Peruvian beans and rice, $14.95; shredded chicken with nutty creamy sauce, $12.95; rotisserie chicken, fries or rice and side salad, $12.95; Peruvian-style spaghetti with a pesto of spinach, basil, walnuts, cheese, $12.95; American breakfast plates (served weekend mornings only), scrambled eggs with ham or bacon, $7.95; veggie omelet, $7.95 (egg dish prices include bread, coffee, OJ)
Buses: 1, 215
Nearest Bus Stops: El Cajon Boulevard at 50th street (#1); El Cajon Boulevard and Winona (#215)