Before recently, I knew only two things about Peru and Peruvians. One: They make a mean pisco sour. Two: The country is home to Machu Picchu, one of the most breathtaking, mind-boggling, man-made structures in the world. That was the extent of my knowledge about this Latin American country, until I went to Taste of Peru
, a tiny North Side haunt crammed into a shabby strip mall. The restaurant also taught me that Peruvian chefs churn out a mean paella that rivals the best that I have had in Spain.
I had eyeballed the Taste of Peru sign close to a trillion times while cruising up and down North Clark Street, but it wasn't until recently that two of my buds and I ended up there on a whim. We were all lost as geese about where to eat, and something about Peruvian sounded exotic at the time. On the hunt for something hearty, steaming and cheap, we thought Taste of Peru fit the bill, and its BYOB policy cemented our decision.
The menu read like the Bible: confusing, long and overwhelming. Just gimme seafood, rice, tamales and something to do with tender beef; a solid meal can be summed up with those four elements. We finally got our order down, and then set out to discuss all the best places in the world for food.
Have you ever done that? Compiled a list of your best meals ever? I've been haunted for years about the seafood pasta I twirled down in Cinque Terre, Italy. I can recall with haunting clarity some fried shrimp tacos I scarfed in Baja. There was the whole spicy fish fried in honey on the remote Indonesian island of Lombok, and a paella in Spain that still calls my name (and so does the pitcher of sangria that accompanied it). After filming a TV show on Little Corn Island, Nicaragua, I quaffed the most enchanting mojotos I've ever come across, and they were almost—almost—trumped by a South African version at the Westcliff Hotel in Johannesburg. The best ceviche I've ever had the pleasure of inhaling was at Casa O's on Isla Mujeres, Mexico, and you cannot beat the tortilla soup making its way out of the kitchen at Hotel Lagunita in lovely, you-get-there-by-boat-only Yelapa, Mexico. Global eats make the world go round and certainly make for good conversation.
Now back to Peru. Our chatty waiter dropped such a huge pile of food on our table that we were jacked back into reality real quick. Forget about the past; focus on the present. I was insanely impressed with the paella. In fact, I don't know a single other place in Chicago that I would truly recommend for this seafood-laden nest of starch. It takes a real special hand to whip this dish up right, especially if you have sampled it all over its Motherland: Spain. Taste of Peru's take brimmed with fresh seafood: chunks of fish, juicy clams, spindly crab legs and little rounds rings of calamari. And when I say brimming, I mean poking out at all angles—a real good thing for selfish fans who are into sharing, because there was plenty to go around.
The tamales were different that what I'm used to but delicious nonetheless. Pretty much everything came sprinkled with pickled onions, and the potatoes were literally drenched in a light cheese sauce and pea-size capers. The beef was tender and aromatic. It was slowly simmered with carrots, potatoes and onions, and thank God my pals chose to focus on its blissful flavor because that just left more curls of shrimp and spoonfuls of paella for me. Now, back to the 'round-the-world food; there was that pizza I had in France and the Indian I adored in South Africa...
The Final Rave: Get there early on the weekend because there's live music and it can get a little hectic. And, make sure you bring plenty of pisco: These boys pour hard.
Keep it going:
Eat it: Machu Picchu
Bar none, this place has the best chicken soup I have ever tried. And, it's bright green to boot.
Do it: Amauta School
Learn about Peruvian cooking, take salsa classes, volunteer and conquer Spanish all in one handy package.
Drink it: Rinconcito Sudamericano
This place is a little higher-end, but has such a good reputation, it's gotta be worth the extra bones. And, there's always pisco sour to slug while you wait for a table.
Get crazy with it: Machu Picchu If you're gonna check out ruins, it might as well be the master of them all.
Fatcake Misty Tosh explores back-alley eateries, holes-in-the-wall and seedy ethnic joints as she treks the city in search of the next raving dish. Join her in the quest.