Our world travel began with a full month in Peru. Although we left the country several weeks ago, its cuisine seems to have been following us around; Peruvian dishes are famed all over South America, and are gathering worldwide recognition.
With a restrictive travel budget it’s difficult to be a foodie on the road. While we allow ourselves the occasional treat – for example the spectacular floating river restaurant Al Frio y Al Fuego in Iquitos – we can’t afford to dine out all the time.
In Peru, however, we soon discovered the local quirk that is the menú (pronounced “m’noo”). These are homely restaurants, often more like little cafés and usually only open from about noon until 4pm, that offer two- or three-course meals with a drink for bargain prices. They don’t tend to be touristy and are usually teeming with locals, so you get a good cultural experience as well.
Thanks to these places, we were able to eat out almost every day during our time in Peru. The prices vary from city to city, but in general we paid anything between 6 and 16 Peruvian soles each (about GBP 1.50 to 4). The very cheapest we found was in Puno for 3.5 Peruvian soles (about 80 British pence, or one euro).
Menú restaurants are extremely hit and miss, however. As you might expect, the less you pay the more likely it is to be a miss, but that wasn’t always the case. We managed to navigate our way around most of Peru’s signature dishes at a combination of menús in different cities; here is a compilation of some of our best and worst experiences. I have included links to restaurant websites where I could find them.
Peru’s capital, the natural home of the country’s finest dining, was the first stop of our journey. It was here we tried our first ceviche, the country’s most famous dish, which mainly consists of raw fish pieces in a lemon, chilli and coriander dressing. A good ceviche is heaven.
We didn’t end up eating ceviche in a menú, partially because we didn’t trust cheap raw fish, and also because it’s hard to find. One of our rare treats was a lunch at Punto Azul in Lima, where we paid about GBP 8 for a ceviche, and it was bloody fabulous.
Back to budget dining. We had our first menú in Lima’s Barranco district. As it was our first day in South America our Spanish was very basic; we couldn’t figure out how the place worked, and through a misunderstanding we missed out on a soup starter that was part of the menú deal. We skipped straight to the main of chicken and rice (probably the most common menú dish) with a glass of orange cordial.
In Lima we also had our first sample of ‘Chifa’, a cuisine that fuses Chinese and Peruvian styles. Chifa tends to account for the few menú restaurants that open in the evening, and so we took advantage. At Chifa Tau Tau we paid 16 soles each for a choice of soup or wonton for starter, followed by a huge place of arroz chaufa (a rice dish) and meat, with a bottle of fizzy pop.
Living costs in the Peruvian Amazonian city of Iquitos are much cheaper than Lima and other main cities. Within a short vicinity of our hostel we found menús for as cheap as 5 soles, and we rarely saw any higher than 12 soles.
The menús in Iquitos often felt like we were eating in someone’s home kitchen, especially those further away from the city centre.
It was in Iquitos we enjoyed one of our best menú meals, at a city centre place called Pikanto, where for 10 soles each we got three courses and a drink. For starters we had causa, a great little Peruvian dish made of mashed potato with a meat or fish filling and topping. As the vast majority of menús only offer soup or salad as the starter, this was a real treat.
For the main we both had lomo saltado, another Peruvian classic – strips of beef fried up with peppers and onions, and served with rice. Instead of the usual cordial we had chicha morada, a sweet local drink made from the juice of purple corns. Finally, for dessert we had a fruit jelly cup.
We stayed in Nazca for two days, which in all honesty was too long; we were only there to see the famous Nazca lines, and the town didn’t have a lot else to offer (sorry Nazca!).
What it did have was a lot of cheap menús, many at 6 or 7 soles. On the first day Lisa was bedridden with illness, and so I wandered out to sample a couple of these places on my own. The fare was mostly the same – soup followed by chicken and rice.
Lisa perked up on the second day, and after flying over the lines we grabbed another menú in the town centre, a couple of blocks west of the main plaza. This was one of the better ones, although we spent 15 soles each here as drinks weren’t included. Like many menú places it offered different food options from basic at 9 soles, to premium at 12 soles.
The highlight of this place was papa a la huancaina for starters – a Peruvian speciality of sliced potatoes in a creamy sauce of cheese, milk and spices. My main was tasty, too – beef steak served with chips, fried plantain, a fried egg and salad.
We spent two days in Cusco acclimatising to the altitude ahead of the Inca Trail. We stayed in the pretty district of San Blas, full of stony steps, colourful buildings, great city views, and most importantly, lots of places to eat!
The menús here were quite different to other cities. They tended to be a bit more pricey (typically 15 to 20 soles), but offer slightly classier food with more variety. For example, on the first day we had vegetable lasagne and a strange fruit smoothie drink in an arty menú restaurant that could’ve been teleported from East London.
We found a gem of a menú in Cusco after returning from the Inca Trail, again in San Blas – Granja Heidi. With an upstairs balcony overlooking the city, we paid 15 soles each for two courses and a drink. Lisa took the opportunity to try some Alpaca steak, which has a similar taste to beef but is much leaner, while I ordered spaghetti and pesto. The drink was refreshing homemade lemonade.
We didn’t end up trying guinea pig, which is a very popular delicacy in Cusco – we couldn’t find it for any cheaper than 35 soles each, and it certainly wasn’t offered in any menús.
In Cusco, we also discovered another great way to eat on a budget in Peru – local markets. The city’s huge San Pedro market has a whole section of hot food stalls, and on our last day there we got a huge plate of chicken, avocado, salad and rice for 6 soles each.
Peru’s second most populous city, Arequipa, has no shortage of options for eating out, but we found it to be on the expensive side, so we stuck with our common formula of menús for lunch and home-cooking for dinner.
We stayed in the Vallecito area of the city, about 20 minutes’ walk from the centre, and close to our hostel we found a couple of very good 7 soles menús. In the best of them, we enjoyed some spicy marinated pork chops after a huge vegetable soup starter.
As with Cusco, the market in Arequipa is a great way to eat on a budget. Mercado San Camilo, a short walk from the main plaza, has a choice of food stalls and a great selection of cheap meat, vegetables, dairy products and more.
On the final night in the city, after a tough experience trekking the Colca Canyon (read Lisa’s article about that here), we did treat ourselves to a meal out. After scouring the city centre for somewhere nice, we found a lovely little restaurant called Mirador Misti, with a romantic outside balcony area overlooking the Basilica Cathedral. The prices were very reasonable and the food was not bad at all.
Our final stop in Peru was Puno on Lake Titicaca. We spent less than 24 hours in the city, which did not include a lunchtime, and so we didn’t eat in a menú. We did see a lot around, though (including the above-mentioned 3.5 soles one), and most notably there were several offering trout from the lake.
Since leaving Peru, we’ve found that ‘menú del dia’ restaurants exist all over South America, but outside Peru they are more expensive and a lot more geared towards tourists.
We found the Peruvian menú experience to be a great way to sample local cuisine and culture, while sticking within our travel budget.
Finally, I must give a big shout out to my pal Dan, who lives in Lima, who educated us on the phenomenon of the menú and also gave us the tip-off about Punto Azul. As always, it really helps to have access to local knowledge when it comes to dining and money-saving!