Pay like a Pauper, Eat like a King

Greetings, Intrepid Readers.

I mentioned in my first post that I wasn’t sure if groceries are expensive or eating out is cheap. Well, the results are in, and eating out is cheap. For lunch anyway.

To find the cheapest meals, get some exercise. I walk around the neighborhood I live in or the one I decide to explore and any restaurant that has a whiteboard or chalk board out front listing all their options for the day  is fair game for lunch. Prices generally range from about 8 – 16 soles, that’s roughly 3-6 dollars. What will such little money get you?

A lot of food.

You get two courses; a small appetizer, or entrada, and a main plate, called segundos or fondos. Sometimes you get a drink, usually some sort of watered down juice, but it’s hit or miss. I usually carry a water bottle with me, so no issue on missing out.

But what exactly is served? Well, it depends on what is listed at the particular restaurant for their lunch options, or as it is called here, menú.

Most places offer three of four entradas, which are usually small salads or cold potatoes with various sauces on them. Papas a la Huancaína are ubiquitous, and every place has them. It’s a Peruvian staple.

I hate Papas a la Huancaina.

They were okay the first time, and every time after I wonder to myself why anyone would want these. So what is Papas a la Huancaina? Well, Huancaina sauce is a special blend of yellow aji peppers, a mildly spicy pepper popular really only in this region, some sort of cheese, water and saltine crackers. Yep. Saltine Crackers. Its not fantastic. Pour that all over cold potatoes. It’s bright yellow, served with an olive and hard-boiled egg.

Other entrada offers are usually tequeños, tiny fried tortillas wrapped around  shredded chicken (which I love, even though I’m pretty sure I can get them at any Mexican restaurant in the States), and various soups.

Then, before you’ve even finished your entrada, segundos come out. Some places might offer only 3 or 4 segundos, but I’ve seen places that have around 12 different options. That said, it’s better to get your menú earlier in the day, as there are limited amounts of each option (except Papas a la Huancaina) and restaurants just erase their options off the board out front as they run out.

The main plates are almost always a side of rice, a side of potatoes, and your choice of protein (chicken, beef, pork) in various delicious sauces. My personal favorite is Estofado de Pollo, which is a bit like the Peruvian take on Tikka Masala.

It’s so good.

Whatever protein you end up getting, its always seasoned phenomenally, and their sauces are always flavorful. I think I’ve only run into one or two dishes that I didn’t like; everything else has been great, and I’m paying almost nothing for consistently some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. This city is a string of tiny little hole in the wall restaurants, secret to the rest of the world. These are the opposite side of the Lima restaurant scene; the city is known as the “gastronomic hub” of South America, where fancypants restaurants charge 10 times as much for ceviche. But don’t be fooled, ceviche is a common menú entrada.

But not every day is a winner; like yesterday. Yesterday I really wanted Estofado de Pollo, and I was exploring the Surquillo neighborhood for the first time. It was pretty much only offering Peruvian Chinese food, called Chifa, and I was not in the mood. I really wanted Estofado de Pollo and I wasn’t finding it, and I was running out of time because menú lunches are only served until about 4.

Finally, I gave up on finding my preferred meal of the day and, at 3:30, stumbled into the first place close to me. Papa Johns. Yeah, that Papa Johns. I feel so ashamed for admitting that it tasted amazing; cheap, shitty pizza that I can get anywhere in America, but I enjoyed it, dammit. Please feel free to judge me. Transgressions of American pizza chains aside, I’ve got a lot of meals to learn how to make, because I want to bring this food home with me. Except Papas a la Huancaina.

Peru can keep them.


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