It will surprise no one that this year was dominated by outstanding eats and drinks in Lima, Peru. That city continues to be on fire for foodies. But don’t worry. We found wonderful wine, chefs, bars, and more in Bolivia and Argentina as well. Welcome to part 3 of our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2017 series, our guide to the Best Food & Beverages of the year. Part 1 covers the Top Travel Adventures of 2017, part 2 covers the Best Hotels of the year and part 4 tells you all about our Top Travel Gear of the Year.
Now, in no particular order, we present:
The Best Food & Beverages of 2017
Best new tasting menu in Lima: The latest chef to toss his toque into the vibrant tasting menu scene in Lima, Peru is Peruvian chef Palmiro Ocampo. In May of 2017 he turned the top floor of his 1087 Restaurante into a tasting menu only venue with more than a touch of theater (420 soles, about US$130 with wine pairings or 300 soles, about US$92, without pairings for a 12-course menu plus 3-4 starters). Ring the buzzer and mirrored doors open revealing a man holding a wooden box. Take the small bag out of the box, climb the stairs, and enter a space that feels like transplanted jungle complete with dangling trees and a jungle soundtrack the chef recorded himself. The experience starts at the bar around the open kitchen then proceeds to private tables where the tasting menu, called Allin Yyaykuy Allin Mikuy which means “good to think, good to eat” in the Incan Quechua language which survives in Peru to this day, begins. One course is eaten in the dark with only a small black light flashlight to guide you in a nod to the Inca’s prowess at reading the stars. Though the Incans probably would not recognize courses such as jerky-like beef tongue in a clay emulsion with achiote and cocao paired with a Spanish Conca del Riu Anoia which is a new sparkling wine denomination in competition with cava. A potato dish called El Trueque was a revelation of textures from rich pureed potatoes to a creamy whole potato to the shaved dust of pungent dried potatoes to a crispy cracker covered in gold which creates a ring of golden liquid around the whole plate.
Best chart-topping value: A 15-course tasting menu at Restaurant Gustu in La Paz, Bolivia will set you back about US$90 and it’s worth every penny. However, if your travel budget is more limited, you’re still in luck. Every day Gustu, which is #14 on the 2017 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, serves a three-course lunch for 105BS (about US$15). Choose from two appetizer and two main course options and a dessert and enjoy. Lunch dishes are less experimental than the tasting menu dishes but are still centered on Bolivian ingredients. Add a glass of surprisingly good Bolivian wine (more on that below) or a Bolivian craft beer for 20BS (about US$3).
Best pisco sour: Confession: we do not love Peru’s ubiquitous cocktail. Pisco sours are usually just too sweet and foamy for us with not enough pisco flavor – more like a dessert than an adult beverage. At Museo del Pisco in downtown Lima (there’s one in Cuzco and one in Arequipa too) the pisco sours are made to order as you want them. there are more than 100 piscos to choose from, including infused piscos and the knowledgeable staff are there to guide you. We particularly enjoyed a pisco sour made with pisco infused with coca leaves which added a welcome earthiness and bitterness. And always order your pisco sours with less sugar.
Best coasters: Dondoh, a Japanese style robata grill in the San Isidro neighborhood of Lima, Peru, opened in the fall of 2016 (learn more in our story for New Worlder). It’s a “live fire” place and they’ve cleverly incorporated burn marks on their coasters which are the perfect complement to the restaurant’s creative cocktails and one of the largest whiskey selections in Peru.
Best Italian food: CIA trained chef Gabriella Prudencio learned how to make pasta during her time in the kitchen at Mario Batali’s restaurnats. Back home in Bolivia, Gabriella has taken those skills and run with them at her Propiedad Publica restaurant in La Paz. The focaccia is homemade and legit. The greens come from her family’s hydroponic farm and are used to make amazing salads like butter lettuce with nuts and gorgonzola. The pastas are, of course, homemade and a wide range of sauces are made to order. Even the sides, things like baked cauliflower and carrots in brown butter, are finessed. She also has a great wine selection. Try the Marquez de la Vina Bonarda which is made in Cochabamba, Bolivia. In the US the Bonarda varietal is called Charbono and the bottle took us right back to tasting rooms in California. Gabriella offers a good value set lunch (80BS, about US$12) for an entree, pasta of your choice, juice, and dessert) and dinner is a la carte.
Best brew pub: The craft brew scene in Peru is growing and improving every year. A leader is a brewery called Barbarian which produces a wide range of high quality beers and has two true brew pubs in Lima. The newest Barbarian brew pub just opened in Barranco which is our favorite neighborhood in the city (their original brew pub is in Miraflores). Here you’ll find more than a half-dozen Barbarian brews on tap along with a hand-selected array of beers from many other Peurvian breweries. It’s a great place to sample Peruvian craft beer in a cool environment (great music, playful decor) with good food (burgers, wings, salads, and sandwiches).
Best hotel cooking class: When a Relais & Chateaux hotel offers a cooking class, you sign up. That’s how Karen found herself in the kitchen with Chef Andres at House of Jasmines Estancia de Charme near Salta, Argentina. Chef Andres proceeded to teach her how to make the beloved Argentinean empanada. Sort of. She’s still struggling with her technique, but even her funny-looking empanadas tasted great, especially with a glass of Argentinean Torrontes.
Best coffee shop: At HB Bronze coffee shop in downtown La Paz, Bolivia, they’re serious about sourcing the best Bolivian coffee (including geisha) and then treating it right. All the major methods of brewing are available and staff are meticulously trained. Coffee is also featured in a wide range of inventive cocktails (see below) and the space is elegant (wood, bronze, lots of natural light) yet casual. There’s also a menu of salads, sandwiches, charcuterie plates, desserts and more.
Best gross-sounding cocktail that turned out to be great: When Boris Alarcon, the gregarious owner of HB Bronze, handed us a Parkeriosinho cocktail made with papaya soda (a full-on obsession in Bolivia), Campari, gin, and coffee liqueur we had our doubts. The thing looked like a welcome drink on a Carnival cruise. Then we tasted it: mellow, balanced, refreshing, and just the right mix of bitter and sweet. Bonus: it represents the bands of color in the Bolivian flag.
Best business card: Chef Moma Adrianzar of Jeronimo in Lima, Peru is doing things differently. In a city full of ceviche (not a complaint), chifa, and interpretations of Peruvian food, he’s offering a wide-ranging menu with something for everyone (from pulled pork, to tacos, to, yes, ceviche). That’s why the place is always packed. The chef’s business card is further expression of his creativity and individualism, but go for the food.
Best vegan: You do not have to be vegan (we’re clearly not) to be thrilled and satisfied by the food at Ali Pacha in downtown La Paz, Bolivia. The place is the creation of chef Sebastián Quiroga who went from meat eater to vegan. Unwilling to compromise on flavor just because he’d transitioned to a plant-based menu, Sebastián has worked hard to turn the principles of veganism into strengths, not constraints. Along with a young and enthusiastic staff (some of whom have also become vegan), the kitchen turns out completely uncompromising dishes like smoked beet ceviche, French radishes in walnut sauce, and the best home-baked bread in the city all served in an elegant room. Choose 3, 5, or 7 course lunch and dinner menus (100B to 200BS or about US$15 to US$30 without beverages) and prepare to re-think vegan. In 2017 Sebastián, who looks more like a hippie than a Le Cordon Bleu trained chef, opened UMAWI bar above the restaurant where the growing crop of Bolivian spirits (1825 Vodka, Killa Andean Moonshine whiskey, and Gin La Republica) are well utilized.
Best hotel cocktail class: Hotel B in Lima, Peru is one of the best hotels in the entire country. It’s also a Relais & Chateaux property and home of award-winning barman Jose Luis Valencia. The hotel offers a cocktail making class with Jose Luis (190 soles or about US$60) during which you learn to make three cocktails (one with pisco, one with gin, and one with rum) each paired with an elegant snack. Jose Luis speaks excellent English and is knowledgeable, engaging, and passionate.
Best wine surprise: Who knew Bolivian wine makers are producing some very good wine? Well, one guy knew–Bertil Tottenborg, the sommelier (and general service czar) of Gustu in La Paz (see above). He generously shared his knowledge with us and that guided our time in Tarija and Valle de Cinti where the bulk of Bolivia’s wine is made. Standouts include Sausini and Bodega Magnus in Tarija and Casa de Campo and Cepas de Fuego in Valle de Cinti which is also home to a young winemaker producing extreme natural wine that’s not quite for sale yet. Don’t expect to see these bottles in your local wine shop. Every drop is sold within Bolivia so you’ll have to come down and try it for yourself.
Best bar: La Whiskeria is a tiny bar in La Paz, Bolivia but it makes a big impression. The decor looks like it was done by the set designer for Twin Peaks (in a good way). It’s dark. Furniture is upholstered in quilted red leather. There’s wood paneling and a fireplace. In fact, the place has been used as a movie set. The bartender, Josue Grajeda, is a master of cocktails that are inventive but not silly. It’s an appealing combination of ambiance and libation.
Best medialuna: In Argentina breakfast is not breakfast without a medialuna – a kind of breadier croissant brushed with a sweet, sticky icing. They vary widely in quality, but the best we’ve had (so far) were on the breakfast buffet at Finca Valentina Casa de Campo, a country hotel just outside Salta, Argentina. They’re baked fresh daily and arrive piping hot and flaky.
Best burger: Juicy Lucy, a gourmet mini-chain in Lima, Peru, offers a range of burgers (from 28 soles, or about US$9 with fries) plus a fried chicken sandwich and a veg panini. The buns were tasty but not too bready, the patties were simply spiced and very juicy (you’ll go through at lest 5 napkins), and the fries were great. But why no beer?
Best historic bar: Bar Maury (sometimes called the Morris Bar) in the run down Hotel Maury in downtown Lima has been around since 1821 and claims to be the birthplace of the pisco sour (disputed). What’s not disputed is that winning race horses were once brought into the bar for a tipple (we saw the photos). The bar has changed little since those day and the dark wood paneling, moody lighting, and scruffy atmosphere remain. The bar tenders haven’t changed either. We met old-timer Eloy Caudros there with Melanie Asher, owner and distiller of Macchu Pisco, and he whipped up a few pisco sours for us using Melanie’s awesome creations. He’ll do the same for you.
Best place we should have eaten at years ago: We don’t know why it took us so long to get to one of the many restaurants from acclaimed Peruvian chef Rafael Osterling who has places in Bogotá, Colombia and in Lima, Peru. Our meal at Rafael in Lima, which is #24 on 2017 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, was a nearly perfect mix of atmosphere (casual, modern decor including a pleasingly rambling collection of modern art) service (attentive but patient waiters with an excellent grasp on the menu), and food including a long list of appetizer and main course specials. The eating started with a basket of chewy bread with topping choices including organic butter, goat cheese cream, and thin slices of mild pastrami pork. We shared a tuna tiradito starter that came already split onto two beautifully presented plates. The sauce was lively and the sliced, raw fish nearly melted in our mouths. The most beautiful plate we ordered was cloud-like gnocchi (the pastas are homemade too) in a goat cheese sauce with cherry tomato halves and thin-sliced radishes. Confit pork came in two luscious squares on a bed of creamed cauliflower. The confit grouper on squid ink rice with scallops and shrimp was the most surprising and satisfying dish – essentially an elegant deconstructed paella. The restaurant bar, which features an impressive array of libations including a number of bourbons, offers a tapas menu if you just want to dip a toe.
Best dinner party with a star chef: When one of the buzziest chefs in Latin America invites you over for dinner you say yes. We assumed we would be joining a large group of people. After all, we’d just met this chef. We arrived with a bottle of pisco as a gift and were shocked to discover that the dinner party was really just us, the chef, and two others. Intimate to say the least. Oh, and delicious. And we’re not naming names.
Check out more top eats in Latin America in our posts about Eating Our Way through the 50 Best List.
Here’s more about travel in Argentina
Here’s more about travel in Bolivia
Here’s more about travel in Peru