Cusco, Peru is a city for people who love to eat. Traditional Peruvian food varies by region, and each of the villages surrounding the city has a specialty, from bread in Oropesa to chicharron in Poroy to duck in Lucre.
The riches that fueled the traditional array of stews, soups, and roasts has inspired not only locals, but foreigners who have settled in Cusco, the sacred city at the heart of Peru’s tourist boom. Whether top-level fine dining or creative comfort foods, Cusco offers plenty to get a wondering gourmand excited. Sit back and let TLK take you on a tour of the best food in Cusco, Peru's city of kings.
“Afuera hay mas,” reads the slogan of Mater, Virgilio Martinez’s exploratory culinary initiative. Cusco is the perfect base for Martinez’s hunt; it's a center point to valleys, lakes, and high mountains, and the spoils of the Mater team’s explorations can be found on the menu at Senzo, the in-house restaurant at the Palacio Nazaranes.
Senzo is Martinez’s second restaurant, and while he visits as often as possible, the day to day is in the hands of talented young chef, Veronica Rojas. A vast lunch menu and two tasting menus at dinner - one vegetarian - present diners with unique regional ingredients: oval tree tomatoes, sachatomate; cushuro, little bubble shaped algae that grow in the heights; araimpo, a local strain of prickly pear used to die hunks of paiche a bright pink; a clay rock, chaco, that grinds down to an edible paste; and an alpaca tartar. Don't miss the salads; the region's combination of sunlight and altitude makes for vibrant, tasty greens.
MAP Café is the pride of the seven establishments operating under the innovative Cusco Restaurants Group umbrella. Set in an elongated cuboid resting on the cobbles of the Pre-Colombian Art Museum, it is arguably one of the best situated restaurants in Peru. Its size makes it intimate - almost too much so when it fills up - but glass walls with a view to the surrounding courtyard show off the building's ornate architecture and add breadth to the space.
Map Cafe's menu is elaborate and interesting, though not as adventurous as that of Senzo. Executive chef Coque Ossio and chef Manuel Córdova modernize classic local dishes built on superb raw ingredients, many sourced from an organic farm in the nearby valley.
The capchi de setas (right), a creamy wild mushroom soup with broad beans, local white cheese and a touch of rocotto, is a dish commonly eaten during Cusco's rainy season. Here, Córdova bakes it under a crumbly pie shell, and it is one of the restaurants iconic dishes. Another Cusqueño great is the adobo. MAP’s version (left) is slow-cooked and deep fried, then served on sweet potato, goat cheese and amaretto stuffed ravioli.
(MAP Café caters at another of Cusco Restaurants’ venues, El Parador de Moray. Spectacularly located in a remodeled hacienda next to the famous Moray ruins, dining here makes for a memorable experience. The restaurant opens on demand only, for groups of four or more.)
In a city whose restaurant's menus always include one or both of a llama steak and ceviche, Le Soleil is unashamedly French. Its owner, Arthur Marcinkiewicz, is a host from another era, a charming polyglot who has travelled and eaten all over the world. Arturo, as most know him, brings ingredients from Paris, serves a wine list that is pure Tricolour, and even sends local chefs to stage at Michelin starred restaurants in France.
Le Soleil offers a five and seven course tasting menu, as well as a la carte dining. Both options are exceptional. To dine here is to experience good food, impeccable service and rich flavors that roll over your senses like the waves on the Riviera. Among Le Soleil's best dishes are a subtle pumpkin and ginger soup appetizer, a warm octopus salad with citric sauce, avocado curls around vegetables in a Dijon vinaigrette, canard à l’orange done two ways (left), and a perfect Tournedos Rossini (right).
Less showy but no less flavorful is LIMO, a pleasantly positioned eatery overlooking the main square of Cusco. The menu here is slightly shotgun but covers all the better known Peruvian dishes, including ceviches, tiraditos, and Nikkei rolls, all of which are perfectly rendered. As a bonus, there is a vast list of pisco cocktails, and their suggested pairings are done remarkably well.
Two of LIMO's best menu offerings: a salmon and tuna tiradito Nikkei (left) and a local twist on a classic, trout ceviche.
More casual than the rest, Cicciolina is a Cusco favorite. At the helm is Argentine Chef Luis Alberto Scilotto, who spent 12 years leading La Gloria to the top of its class in Lima. Once a second story throwaway gathering dust under a pile of rubble, Scilotto and his Cicciolina partners transformed the long forgotten space into a welcoming restaurant distinguised by its wood and warmth. Beneath a collection of hanging chilis, Cicciolina's tiny open kitchen turns out balanced dishes that highlight the Andean, Italian and Asian roots of the restaurant's chef and owners.
Greens Organics, the newest member of the Cusco Restaurants family, is focused on healthy, responsibly produced food cooked with flair. The cafe's bright, comfortable space, view overlooking the main square, and long list of juices and smoothies invite visitors in for a power breakfast; deep, soft sofas convince them to stay for lunch.
The man behind Green Organics' light and tasty menu of wraps, salads and pastas is South African chef Stephan Joubert. Nothing on his menu misses, but the white Andean paria cheese, breaded in quinoa and served with a salsa of mango, cilantro and chili (pictured) is a must order.
Back to Cusco... The five-star property JW Marriott El Conveto Cusco is one of the city’s newest hotels and it’s located jut two blocks from the Plaza de Armas (Main Square). Built on the site of a 16th century San Agustin Convent, the property was meticulously restored over eight years. So though you have every convenience of a modern hotel, you’ll still see and feel all the history that came before it.
More than hotel, the 153-room property is basically a museum you can spend the night in. You’ll find pre-Inca walls in some of the guest rooms and archeological and artifact exhibition areas to wander through. There are even daily tours of the convent.
Pre and post tours (yes, both), you’ll want to check out the Pirqa Restaurant, which serves creative takes on traditional Andean cuisine using locally sourced ingredients. Don’t miss the trout ceviche, the classic lomo saltado, or the causa rellena. After dinner, grab a nightcap at the Qespi Bar. No trip to Peru is complete without a pisco sour!