We’re at Huaca Pucllana, a restaurant in Lima, Peru. As we wait on our order, I’m pleased to see the place has a nice mix of locals and tourists alike — and everyone seems happy with the food. And when our first course arrives, so are we!
If you’re like me, your eyes were immediately drawn to that savory-looking meat dish right up front. I mean, just look at it. What is that? Beef? Chicken? Pork?
Our excellent guide, David, from Lima Gourmet Company, waves me away. “I’ll tell you after you eat it.”
* * * * *
At first, I confess I’m a little dubious about eating at the restaurant at Huaca Pucllana.
I mean, come on. It’s a restaurant built right smack in the middle of a pre-Incan huaca, or temple site. I imagine that the place must be incredibly touristy — something like a TGI Friday’s built in the middle of a graveyard.
But then, when we get there, it looks like this:
Wow. Sophisticated and beautiful on the outside. And, once inside, from our table, there’s an exquisite view of the huaca — a rare example of an earthquake-proof building method from 1800 years ago:
See how the bricks are placed, like library books on a shelf? That allows them to flex back and forth when earthquakes occur … so the huaca remains standing even after strong tremors.
* * * * *
So, as much as I’d like to go straight for those savory-looking bites of meat on our sampler platter, I take our guide’s advice and start with the scallops: caught that morning, drenched in local butter, and heavily garnished with fresh parmesan cheese. Sometimes cliches are true, because these little bites of seafood really do melt in our mouths.
Near the back of the platter are the strips of grilled octopus, served atop a bed of chopped new potatoes. In the States, it’s all too common to order octopus and get a rubbery, previously-frozen hunk of something that has all the culinary charm of a black band of weather stripping. But here, the octopus is tender and delicate … and the potatoes, after having been simmered in fish broth and spices, are one of those “I could make a meal off this alone” kinds of side dishes.
I start again to go for the savory-looking meat, but once again, David encourages me to save it for last.
So I opt instead for the next-to-last dish: the round yellow potatoes topped with salmon and avocado. Delicious — but I confess I’m distracted by the mystery meat that awaits.
Whatever it is, it’s served over seasoned white corn, which is a treat in itself. I fork up a strip, cut it in half — tender! — and take a bite. It’s beef — definitely beef. The texture, though, isn’t like strip steak or filet, or even your standard roast. It’s mellow and soft and silky — a real delicacy.
“Long ago,” David says, “the Spanish came here with African slaves. After the Spaniards ate their fill of the best meat, they tossed the slaves whatever was left.” He gestures at the meat. “This is beef heart, the food the Spaniards threw away.”
Now, I grant you, it’s been gussied up for company here at Huaca Pucllana, but I have to say the Spaniards seem a little foolish for having tossed aside something this succulent. (And, even though I’m an adventurous eater, I have to say that, had you told me I’d be eating seconds and thirds of beef heart on this trip, I would have said you were crazy.)
The meal ends with one of the most attractive flights of dessert I can ever remember being served:
Each little shot glass is filled with a different treat (rice pudding, cheesecake, fruit) and topped with a different topping (ice cream, a wafer of cinnamon glaze, whipped cream). Every bite is a little surprise — like a series of sweet presents you open with a spoon.
By the time we waddle off, I’m sold on Huaca Pucllana — determined to come back at night, when the ruins are lit with colored lights — and we are happy travelers indeed: