Crunchy ceviche in Peru, a chart-topping steal in Brazil, an epic Bloody Mary in Ecuador, a big surprise burger in Bolivia, and more. Welcome to part 3 of our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2016 series–our guide to the Best Food & Beverages of the year. Part 1 covers the Top Travel Adventures of 2016, part 2 covers the Best Hotels of the year and part 4 tells you all about our Top Travel Gear of the year.
Best Food and Beverages of 2016
Best chart-topping steal: A Casa do Porco in downtown São Paulo, Brazil debuted on the list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2016 at #24. There’s a reason for that remarkably high entry: chef Jefferson Rueda cooks a pig (porco in Portuguese) like no one else and his nose-to-tail dishes are inventive yet never overworked. He’s not a meddler. Pork sushi roll with raw pork (top right), pig foot soup, his take on steamed pork buns, meaty deep-fried chicharron cubes (top left) which he tops with guava pepper jelly and micro greens, succulent whole-roasted pig served chopped with grilled greens, polenta, and creamy beans. We could go on and on.
Prices are remarkably affordable (on par with many ho-hum eateries in Sao Paulo) which is why there’s usually a line out the door at this no reservations place. Insider tips: go for lunch in the late afternoon for the best chance of getting a table (A Casa do Porco does not close in the afternoon like many restaurants do). And even if you’re really on a budget, grab a fantastic pork sandwich on a homemade ciabatta roll from the restaurant’s to-go window on the street. At R$15 (about US$4.50), it’s the biggest sandwich bargain in the city–perhaps the whole country.
Best reinvention of a beloved classic: Peru is the land of ceviche and if you ask a Peruvian, no one else does it right. At Restaurante Bilbao in Tumbes, Peru, Spanish chef David Saez has daringly put his own twist on the classic. To make his award-winning ceviche crocante (crunchy ceviche) he prepares classic Peruvian ceviche with fish, crab and shrimp. Here comes the twist. He dices up the seafood and squeezes out as much liquid as possible. Then he makes balls out of the seafood mixture, mixes it with egg and panko, then flash fries the balls. The result is a citrusy take on a crab cake.
Best bartender: Leonardo Massoni is just 28-years-old but he’s already caught the eye of Brazilian star chef Alex Atala whose São Paulo restaurant D.O.M. is #3 on the 2016 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants. Atala installed Massoni behind the bar at his newest restaurant, Açougue Central which opened in the city’s Vila Madalena neighborhood in 2016. Açougue means butcher in Portuguese and the restaurant is all about using all parts of the animal, including cuts that are usually considered inferior.
Massoni has taken that mission to heart, invading the kitchen frequently to consult with chef Alejandro Peyrou about ingredients and flavor profiles which he then incorporates into his bar work to create cocktails that compliment the food like wine. For example, ossobucco infused vodka which Massoni uses to make a splendidly meaty Bloody Mary. There’s a classic robo de galo and a cachaça and tonic and so much more including a fantastic glassware collection.
The creative tide flows both ways too. The crispy pig ears, which the kitchen produces by simmered pig ears for hours in water flavored with onion and spices, then pressing them before deep-frying, are the best bar snack of the year.
Best burger: We were only in Bolivia for eight days in 2016, but that was enough time to find something delicious to eat. There are only four burgers on the menu at Baracus Burger in central Santa Cruz, Bolivia (from around Bs42, or about US$6). We went for the classic cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato. The patty was hefty, tasty, and not over cooked. The bun had sesame seeds on it. And all burgers come with fresh-cut, skin on fries which were crispy and moist (if over salted). Our runner-up burger of the year: Hamburgueria do Barão in Uberlandia, Brazil which has the added benefit of having a selection of Brazilian craft beers to choose from.
Best business card: We really, really liked the craft beer being made by Cerveza Zenith in Cuzco, Peru. We also liked the owner’s business card. Tip: On most Friday and Saturday nights Aussie founder Zac Lanham opens the brewery as an informal bar. Stop by and check out the beers. He might even give you a card.
Best way to play with your food: Young Brazilian chef Leandro Nunes, who is Cordon Bleu trained and worked at Noma, serves a very playful palette cleanser at his Jambu Restaurante in Brasilia, Brazil. First, you pop a fresh, bright yellow jambu flower in your mouth and chew the Amazonian herb until your mouth starts to water and gets all tingly like a low volt electrical current (in a good way). Then you pop in a piece of Brazil nut wrapped in pear leather and let the oil from the nut and the sugar from the fruit cancel out the effects of the jambu. Then pop in a crunchy, completely natural, and totally untreated ant which burst with lemongrass flavor. It’s so much fun.
Best cocktail as a meal: It’s a Bloody Mary. It’s a seafood cocktail. It’s both! Just order one (US$15) at Zfood Pescaderia in Quito, Ecuador.
Best chef on a mission: At 1087 Bistro in Lima, owner and chef Palmiro Ocampo practices what he preaches about using the whole ingredient to reduce food waste and alleviate hunger using “culinary recycling” techniques (learn more in our story about Ocampo’s mission for Good magazine). Dishes like cartilage grilled chicken (yes, made using cartilage that would normally be thrown away) are elegant, unexpected, and delicious. He can even make plantain peels taste great. That’s why Ocampo was in charge of Peru’s famous Mistura food festival in 2016. Keep your eye on this rising star.
Best wine bar: Ovo e Uva, in São Paulo, Brazil, is a relaxed place that’s serious about wine. The wine list runs to nearly 200 bottles coming from all over the world including the usual suspects plus Greece, Hungary, Lebanon, Uruguay and, of course, Brazil. More than 20 bottles are offered by the glass (R$19 to R$38 per glass or about US$6 to US$11) and Ovo e Uva has a large wine-preservation system to keep all those open bottles fresh. There’s also a menu of wine-friendly food like a charcuterie plate and grilled octopus over risotto. The restaurant also hosts monthly themed wine get togethers for a maximum of 15 people and it’s also a wine store. Pick up a bottle to take away and get 10% off the price.
Best Italian food: Chef Massimo, who was born in Rome, opened Ristorante Trastavere in Cuenca, Ecuador in 2015. He makes homemade pasta, gnocchi, bread, and sauces. He makes his own mozzarella, smokes his own fish, and cures his own meats too. The food, served on red and white checked tablecloths in a small dining room above his even smaller open kitchen, is extraordinary as is Massimo’s passion for what he does. Rumor has it he’s opening a pizza joint in Cuenca too.
Best old man bar: You know what an old man bar is, right? It’s a place that’s been around forever, probably always owned by the same family, and certainly frequented by the same patrons (and their offspring). Old man bars are usually short on ambiance but long on history and some intangible something that makes up for the iffy bathroom and mostly non-existent service. Prices and tolerance for BS are both low.
Beloved by starving artists and politicians alike, Juanito Bodgea Bar in the Barranco neighborhood of Lima, Peru is a quintessential old man bar. Opened in 1937, it’s still owned by the same family, albeit next door to the original location where an exact replica of the original bar was re-created. The ceiling is high, the lights are bright, the insect zapper works overtime.
Drink prices are, by far, the cheapest in the area. There are, of course, pisco sours but we prefer chilcanos (pisco and ginger ale) which can be had for as little as PEN7 (about US$2) depending on which pisco you choose, and there are many to choose from. And if you get hungry, don’t worry. Juanito’s (as everyone calls it) is also know for its sandwiches.
Best extreme dessert: A King Kong, made mainly in and around the city of Lambayeque in northern Peru, is a regional treat comprised of rectangular sheets of a crisp and moist cake/cookie hybrid layered with a gooey spread called manjarblanco, which is similar to dulce de leche, and fruit paste. This beloved sugar bomb has been made since the early 1900s and was first baked as a more elaborate and much larger version of an alfajor. It was so large that appreciative customers nicknamed the dessert King Kong.
Best brew pub: Peru is having a beer moment with lots and lots of quality craft brews across the country. Cervezeria del Valle in the Sacred Valley is a relatively young operating but is already one of the country’s most awarded and most ambitious breweries. Big bonus: they have a simple and inviting brew pub next to a river where beers are poured, food is cooked, and good music is played.
Best fried bread on the street: Every year Lima hosts the massive Mistura food festival. During that festival, Peruvian food both high and low is prepared, eaten, and judged. This includes the humble yuquita which is a beloved fried bread made with yuca flour. Think of yuquitas a longer, lighter doughnut s. In the Barranco neighborhood of Lima you will find a cart emblazoned with the name Yuquitas Martin (it’s usually on Grau Street across from a store called DeliFrance). Here, for PEN1.50 (about US$0.50), you get a bag of five fresh, light, delicious yuquitas. Martin’s humble fried bread on the street has won awards at Mistura (as noted on his cart) and Peruvian superstar chef Gaston Acurio endorses them (also noted). Martin usually sells out by 11am, so be quick. We suggest getting two bags.
Best bar on a budget: Jose Francisco Neto (whose business card awesomely says “Barman Neto”) opened Boteco Paramount in 2016 on the edge of the Pinieros neighborhood in São Paulo, Brazil. His idea was to make high quality, handcrafted cocktails at a fraction of the cost most city bars charge. He has accomplished just that. In his tiny, basic bar (it still looks pretty much like the simple tienda it no doubt previously was) you can get a classic caprinha for R$10 (about US$3) or splurge and get an artisenal caprinha, made with fresh chili peppers or muddled tangerine, for example, for R$14 (about US$4.30). All the standard cocktails are also on offer at similarly bargain prices. Whatever you order, enjoy while listening to Jose’s eclectic playlist (Paula Abdul, Led Zeppelin, Kate Bush). If you’re lucky, Jose’s daughter Beatriz will be around drawing pictures and generally being adorable.
Best cure for what ails you: You could easily drive right past Al Toke Pez which is a closet-sized establishment on a busy street in Lima. Sandwiched between auto part stores, this six stool eatery dishes up amazing leche de tigre with sliced onions and a bit of fresh ceviche and a fried fish strip or two on top. It comes to you in a Styrofoam cup with a plastic spoon and they do a roaring take away business (probably because it only has six stools) (PEN3 to PEN5 or about US$0.90 to US$1.50). It’s zippy and energizing and the guy on the stool next to us assured us it’s also full of vitamins and pure protein.Many say its the best hangover cure in the city.
Best food with rules: Juan Carlos Solano, owner and chef at Tiesto’s in Cuenca, Ecuador, knows what’s best. While there is a menu at his restaurant, the self-taught chef is just as likely to tell you what you’re having for dinner and then leave it to the well-trained waiters at this Cuenca institution to tell you how to eat it. House made condiments on the table are meant to be eaten in a specific order and in specific combinations, for example. No willy nilly dipping of bread allowed. That’s because Solano is all about playing with flavors and whether he’s cooking prawns or pork, at his restaurant the flavor game has rules.
Best pizza: At Bassano Italian Pizzeria in Huanchaco, a small beach town in Northern Peru, they make pizza in a wood-fired oven and it shows. The thin crust is crunchy and chewy with just enough salt and wood char. A wide range of toppings are offered including cherry tomatoes and arugula the owners grow themselves. Prices are reasonable too–from PEN25 to PEN38 or about US$7.50 to US$11 (depending on toppings) for a large, 14” pie that yields eights slices. Personal size pizzas are also available. Plus it’s BYOB. Hours are unpredictable, so send a message through the pizzeria’s Facebook page before arriving.
Best unexpected star: We did not expect to find remarkable food in Saraguro, Ecuador a small remote town an hour from Loja. Then we walked into Shamuico Espai Gastronomic run by local chef Samuel Ortega. Ortega moved to Spain with his family when he was 12 and honed his kitchen skills in Europe including time working at Il Bulli.
When Ortega was 24 he returned to Saraguro and opened his own place in a 160 year old building on the square that he restored with his architect sister. Ortega says 90% of the ingredients he uses come from the rich agricultural area around Saraguro or from his own small kitchen garden. His sometimes unorthodox needs have even inspired local farmers to experiment with different crops. Grab a table inside a modern dining room with skylights and a view into the open kitchen or outdoors in the traditional central courtyard and enjoy drinks, snacks, or polished full plates at incredibly reasonable prices. We did.
Best original cocktail: Bernardo, the bartender at La Chalupa restaurant in Cuenca, Ecuador, wanted to create a cocktail that embodies the wild earthiness of nearby Cajas National Park. His Cajas Spirit cocktail is made with rum or tequila that he infuses with herbs harvested from the park plus tonic water, lime juice, and Angostura bitters (around US$5). It’s bracing and refreshing, just like a hike in its namesake park.
Best tasting menu: Few restaurants or chefs have generated more hype in the past couple of years than Virgilio Martinez and his Lima restaurant Central. Central is #1 on the 2016 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants for the third year in a row and #4 on the 2016 list of The World’s Best Restaurants. You can’t talk about top restaurants without mentioning Central and Martinez just released another book. Luckily, you get served more than hype and book reviews at Central.
We sat down to face the 12 course Mater Ecosystems tasting menu and for the next three hours we got schooled in just how good cuisine can be when skill and vision meet. In Martinez’s case, his vision is to celebrate and explore Peruvian ingredients from all altitudes and geographic locations, honoring their provenance. His skill is in being able to re-invent them as well. At one point we were eating bark and clay. And loving it.
Best sushi: Brazil has the largest population of citizens of Japanese descent of any country outside Japan and Brazil is full of Japanese restaurants, including in the city of São Paulo. Tsuri Peixaria Sushi Bar, opened in 2016 by the same family behind the wildly popular Aragón Mediterranean restaurant, could have been just one more, but it’s not. More than just sushi, the inventive menu also includes edamame with truffle oil, scallops with foi gras, tempura, and more. But sushi is where Tsuri really excels, in part because Japanese Brazilian chef Sergio Kubo knows that his real job doesn’t start until the restaurant closes for the night. That’s when, fortified with saki, he heads to the city’s fish market to find the best products for the following day. And all that saki? Chef Kubo says it helps him pick the best fish because it enables him to see the freshest ones winking at him.
Best dream-come-true meal: We’ve been dreaming about eating at Osso Carniceria & Salumeria in Lima, Peru ever since we read this amazing story about its creator, Renzo Garibaldi (pictured below). In 2016 we sat down with Garibaldi for a long lunch that included amazing tartare and small bites of exquisitely aged and sliced beef. Even better, Garibaldi told us about his latest projects (read our piece about Garibaldi’s two new restaurants in Lima for NewWorlder.com), so now we’re dreaming about eating there too. Good thing we’re returning to Lima later this year…
Here’s more about travel in Ecuador
Here’s more about travel in Peru
Here’s more about travel in Brazil
Here’s more about travel in Bolivia