What’s all the fuss about Peruvian cuisine? A visit to Chicha is a good way to find out. Peruvian food has been gaining traction outside of South America quickly over the past few years, as those who follow culinary news have undoubtedly noticed. Among the signs: it made Forbes magazine’s list of top American food trends in 2012, and after closing elBulli in Spain, Ferran Adrià chose a Peruvian-Nikkei Japanese theme for his latest Barcelona restaurant, Pakta.
But it’s difficult to really understand what Peruvian cuisine is all about without tasting it for yourself. A complex mix of cultural influences makes for some wonderfully confounding flavours—think elements of Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and African cooking all rolled into one. (If you’re having trouble picturing this, that’s exactly my point.) And while Vancouver does have several unassuming Peruvian eateries—notably Mochikas Peruvian Café, famous for its location in Kitsilano’s Platinum Touch Auto Spa—Chicha is the first to hit the fashionable niche.
Shelome Bouvette, who co-owns Chicha with Allison Flook and Kumiko Umeno, has built a career cooking Latin-American food. She spent the last eight years as executive chef at Lolita’s South of the Border Cantina and was ready to do something a bit different while staying in the Latin-American realm. Recognizing Peruvian cuisine as “the next big thing”, she travelled to Peru for edible research.
“Chicha is inspired by Peruvian flavours,” she tells the Georgia Straight on the line from her Mount Pleasant restaurant, which opened in May. She freely admits that her recipes aren’t authentic; her goal is to introduce people to Peruvian flavours. “We just want to be a place where people can try a different type of food and have fun.” While she can get some key Peruvian ingredients like citrus-y aji amarillo chili peppers in Vancouver, she can’t source everything she’d like. “As Peruvian food becomes more popular here, you’ll be able to get more ingredients,” she predicts, recalling that when she started at Lolita’s, now-common Mexican ingredients were difficult to find.
Chicha has a good location in the high-traffic East Broadway and Main Street area, and dining here you definitely get that happening buzz. Walking in with my companion at 6:30 p.m. on a weeknight, we had our pick of tables for two, but by 7:30 p.m. the wall of banquette seating was elbow-to-elbow. The single row of tables faces a 12-seat bar, with an aisle between them so narrow two supermodels couldn’t swish by one another. The packed room keeps the energy high, but don’t expect much personal space or intimate conversation.
Our helpful server recommended we order three to five plates to share, keeping in mind that some plates are bigger than others. The heftier dishes include lomo saltado, a popular Peruvian take on Chinese stir-fried beef, and arroz con pato, a northern Peruvian dish of duck and coriander-flecked rice. (At $17, the duck is on the high end of the menu; most plates run about $10 to $12. We ordered five dishes and could have easily stopped at three, especially because our dishes were starch-heavy.)
Having recently visited Peru, I was happy to see solterito arequipeño on the menu, a salad typical of the southern city of Arequipa. Chicha does a good rendition of this bright, refreshing dish with lima beans, artichoke hearts, fresh cheese, black olives, and corn. The salty palitos de yuca (cassava fries) are addictive for their starchy-crispy texture. They’re served with a mustard-yellow huancaína sauce, made from amarillo peppers, evaporated milk, Parmesan cheese, and bread—a Peruvian classic that’s often served with boiled potatoes. The tuna causa (whipped, chilled potato) has Japanese flair, topped with raw albacore tuna and served with passion-fruit ponzu and wasabi cream sauces. The octopus and chorizo anticuchos (grilled skewers) come with whipped potatoes as well, this time blended with basil and peppers. Even the ceviche comes with spuds—in this case, a hunk of sweet potato, as well as corn. The bland ceviche was the least successful dish we tried.
Along with other Pisco-based cocktails, Pisco Sours star on the drinks list. Chicha’s Pisco currently hails from Chile, but they should have Peruvian Pisco in soon. For nondrinkers, Inca Kola is worth a try for a laugh—it’s the colour of a yellow highlighter and tastes like bubble gum.
Don’t skip dessert: the lucuma cheesecake is a treat. While the flavour of the nutty subtropical fruit is muted here, the cake itself is a New York–style dream, with a beautiful graham-cracker crust.
A substantial dinner for two, with two cocktails, came to $79.75 before tax and tip.