Peruvian flavours inspire Chicha restaurant in Vancouver

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      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.


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      Jul 30, 2013 at 7:31pm

      "She freely admits that her recipes aren’t authentic"

      I appreciate this kind of honesty. I went in with a group of Peruvians. We had read the reviews (which are mostly positive), and so were expecting good things.

      Unfortunately, if you're expecting Chichas to replicate Peruvian dishes, you'll be pretty disappointed. I do appreciate that making Peruvian cooking mainstream will take time and dedication, and I commend Chichas on their effort.

      That being said, some dishes are overpriced and small (anticuchos, causa). I'm optimistic that they'll continue to improve, though.

      Mondo Bizzarro

      Jul 31, 2013 at 10:16am

      It's NOT Peruvian food - period. It's a rather poor attempt at South American food - but it's not bad food. However, I was expecting to get a chicha - which is an alcoholic drink! Pretty weird they didn't have it - Kind of like going in to a restaurant called Vodka, and serving only rum.

      Pedro Pablo Morales

      Jul 31, 2013 at 5:01pm

      Loved this restaurant, the food is very good and the service is awesome Finally there is a peruvian restaurant that I can recommend to my canadians friends. Im from Peru and this IS a true peruvian fusion food.
      Just to let you guys now, Chicha have different meanings, there is the "Chicha Culture", chicha de drink made of purple corn, which by the way, you can ordered in the restaurant and "Chicha de Jora" alcoholic drink, (There is very few restaurants in Peru that have this drink as it is a Andean drink sell in houses all over the andes).
      Thanks to the owners of this restaurant for promoting our amazing food.!!!!

      married to a peruvian

      Jul 31, 2013 at 11:10pm

      Nice to see another attempt at Peruvian food in Vancouver, but Chicha unfortunately misses the mark. The family and I visited a couple of weeks ago and after samples 5-6 various dishes, were generally disappointed. The picarones were the only thing I'd want to eat again.

      Looks like us Vancouverites are still having to travel to Portland (Andina) or San Fran (La Mar) for a good taste of peruvian food.

      E&W and KK

      Aug 1, 2013 at 12:23pm

      It is a quaint restaurant with a cool ambience - Vancouver-Peruvian fusion cuisine, maybe. We dropped in last Friday and liked it.


      Aug 1, 2013 at 1:53pm

      The food here is excellent. I don't understand why people feel the need to bash a place for not being authentic, when it clearly does not advertise it as such. Might as well bash McDs for not being authentic Peruvian as well. Anyways, I'd highly recommend checking this place out and then deciding for yourself if having authentic Peruvian is that important to you.


      Nov 2, 2013 at 1:01pm

      Nice atmosphere on a Friday night: crowded with friendly hipster types. And decent friendly service. But the food is definitely pseudo, and portions are small and over-priced. My Lomo Saltado, which is a classic Peruvian dish derived from its huge Chinese population, was more or less French fries with a few pieces of beef. What about the vegetables you get in Peru? Ceviche Mixto had little seafood and lots of yam and corn padding. Pisco Sour was a high-priced joke--needs way more egg white froth. We didn't try them, but empanadas, which are basically a hand-held bakery snack, were presented as entrees. Weird.

      If you like a friendly atmosphere, by all means go. If you like Peruvian food, make it yourself at home.