James Kinard and I from our North Berkeley office have been checking out the two new Peruvian restaurants that opened up in our food-centric city, to see how they compare to the real thing. Peruvian cuisine is pretty trendy these days, and we were curious to know what dishes might show up in original, authentic form or instead as some type of Cal/Peru fusion. Kind of surprisingly, there aren’t many options for Peruvian food in this area, and we were looking forward to trying these new places out.
Our first stop was La Brasa, on University Avenue in downtown Berkeley, a 10 minute walk from our offices. The place has simple, minimalist, tasteful décor. On our first visit, it was empty, never a great sign. The woman at the register seemed indifferent to our existence and we later read reviews suggesting that many others had received a similarly un-Peruvian reception. Peruvians are some of the warmest, most interesting, most hospitable and all around coolest people you could ever meet. We decided this woman must be the exception that proves the rule. (On our second visit, we were happy to be greeted warmly at the door by a different person and a nearly full room of patrons.)
Whoever is there to greet you, one thing that will raise your spirits is the back patio seating, with a beautiful urban courtyard setting shared by another restaurant and cafe. Things will no doubt continue to look up as you order your Cusquenas (the national beer of Peru), though they may drop a bit as you learn that they only have the 12 oz bottles, not the big 16 oz ones like you can get all over Peru.
As for the food: It’s not aiming for high end Peruvian, like La Mar over in San Francisco (a Peruvian seafood restaurant opened by Peru’s most well known chef, Gaston Acurio, modeled after the original in Lima). This is a place priced to be a regular lunch place, and with a varied menu that draws on Peruvian classics but which contains very little in the way of “authentic” Peruvian dishes, with perhaps one main exception, the Pollo a la Brasa (roasted chicken).
The version of Saltado that we had was almost unrecognizable, perhaps mainly because they insist on serving it as a rice bowl, which I don’t think you’d ever see in Peru (it’s always with rice on the side, and much larger portions). But it actually was a decent lunch dish. Had it been dinner, I would either have to order two of them or order a large dessert. Overall, I would have preferred a couple more steps in the direction of the real thing and a little less fusion, but on both occasions we visited it was decent. Not great, not meh, but decent.
A few giant leaps in the more traditional direction is Arriba Peru, which is in South Berkeley on Telegraph Avenue. Open for only three months, the restaurant’s décor was…. well, kind of lacking in any formal sense. There are some fairly kitschy paintings of Machu Picchu and other Peruvian scenes, plus some Peruvian dolls in a case. A bunch of kids’ drawings were taped all over the place. The owner was sitting a table with a radio on it near the kitchen. It’s not design-oriented, and that’s part of its charm. You could be walking into this exact same family restaurant in many places in Peru, full of Peruvians eating their classic dishes such as Lomo Saltado, Lomo a lo Pobre, ceviche, arroz con pollo, anticuchos, tallarin saltado…..and chicha morada or Inka Cola to go with it.
When the food arrives, it immediately reminds you of the exact same dishes you’ve had many times in Peru, from the size of the servings (huge) to the unmistakable smell to the egg sitting on top of a steak that is uniquely Lomo a lo Pobre. If you don’t want big portions and prefer things more fusion style, La Brasa would be your place. If you want the real deal, head to Arriba Peru.