It’s a bit of a dilemma, trying to decide where to take a holiday, given that I haven’t taken advantage of the steamy summer and headed south to a sandy beach along with the rest of Buenos Aires.
In fact, the city is particularly tolerable, heat and all, during January and February given the relative peace and lack of demonstrations snarling up downtown corners. It was just this Thursday that I was silently wishing that the tanned porteños would go back to wherever they’ve been browning themselves, returning the streets to a quieter, cleaner summer state, and more importantly, leave me a seat free on the subway.
Still, I’ve narrowed my vacation spot down to two countries — Peru and Ecuador — for a trip some time in April, on the basis that I’ve never been to either, they are quite close to Argentina — and that’s about it.
What I want, what I really, really want, is some beach action, an overdose of fresh fish or seafood in all their shapes and sizes, and some brisk ocean air. A change of scene, some different menus to browse, and some Inca action thrown in — Inka Kola alone will not suffice.
I even put it out there on Twitter — asking virtual and real-life friends which country I should choose — and so far, Ecuador seems to be edging ahead, with one follower calling it “a microcosm of Latin America”. Well, I like the sound of that, and as the price of flights much of a muchness, it might just be the Equator calling.
But then, I thought, why not let the tastebuds decide? Have a cuisine-off, as it were, a little unofficial competition. I haven’t come up with any rules, I simply want to decide what to consume the most for at least a week.
While Ecuador offers up obscure-sounding dishes such as Hose Soup, Yukka Bread and national dish Guatita — a beef tripe stew in a peanut potato sauce, although photos depict a lot of avocado which I’m allergic to — Peru is already a winner in my Kindle for cebiche, the white fish marinated in lime juice, red onion, with an unexpected hit of chili jus.
But I’m prepared to give both nations a fair shot at this and so a taste test will decide where I spend my holidays.
First up is Little Lima, more commonly known as Abasto, an area which has mushroomed around the former market.
If the idea of fast food from the top floor of the mall doesn’t sound tempting, and you’re not into the idea of trying out Kosher McDonald’s just to say you have, you needn’t go too far off the beaten track to try out some Peruvian. Either side of Corrientes Avenue, on Anchorena or Agüero, are some Inca-infused eateries serving up lunch specials at decent prices.
In an area whose second name should be Tango Town, it’s interesting to see the tributes to Carlos Gardel adorning every other shop front, whether it’s a shoe store or a kiosco, blending together with the Peruvian restaurants, whose young waiters rush out to deliver food.
One lunch spot, which 12 months ago set you back a trifling 16 pesos for two courses and a drink, is Mochica, named after the ancient Peruvian Moche civilization. That same deal at this modern and busy eaterie, run by Elvis (not that Elvis, although there is a suit belonging to The King is loitering in the foyer of the Hoyts cinema in the mall at the moment, oddly enough) and his mum Iris now costs 25 pesos, which isn’t a bad daytime price.
If you take up the 35-peso upgrade, you are offered a couple of options, but since going cheap always makes me more cheerful, I chose not to have a choice.
Mochica is a hit-and-run kind of a restaurant: a large bowl of chicken broth, with carrots, potato and rice vying for a bit of the surface, arrives almost instantly, followed up by a chicha morada, a refreshing purple-corn based drink which has a hint of clove to it and fruity bits floating, sometimes strawberries.
Thursday’s dish of the day was lentils with seco de carne, or beef stew. Although it was tough to cut through, strangely it was perfectly easy to chew down and had a distinct taste of coriander to it, although there was none to be seen on the plate. Vamp up the plain white rice with some of the hot sauce which has a decent bite to it, and if you’re still hungry after all those carbs, dip the sticks, and not the rather dry bread, into the little pots of dip.
The Peruvians in Abasto seem to dine around midnight so it’s easy to find a late-night snack after catching a flick. What with the Bafici indie film festival coming up next month, it will be useful to have a few Abasto watering-holes up your sleeves when the fast-food counters can’t be seen for the queues and Starbuck’s has run out of muffins.
Although it doesn’t look much thanks to the three gaping holes in the ceiling, the tablecloths are perfectly laid at Chabuca Granda, which is open until 2am serving up all the classic Peruvian dishes, including corn-based tamales stuffed with pork or chicken, those cheese ‘n chili Huancaína potatoes, and of course cebiche. Share the mixed version which has an additional loading of mussels and langostinos for 69 pesos. Attempts at making a decent tribute to Peruvian folk singer Chabuca fail miserably in this Zorzal stronghold, and if the popcorn across the street didn’t cut the mustard but you don’t fancy fishy fodder, dip into the menú argentino for a milanesa and chips.
The real star of the cebiche stage in Buenos Aires, however, can be found at the heart of the nation, outside of Little Lima, in Congreso. Chan Chan (or Sun Sun) ticks all the right boxes, and is consistently dependable for a great feed at a decent price and service with a smile.
Although they don’t take bookings, it is worth the wait to get a table at this small joint, which continues to be one of the most reasonably priced places in town, attracting businessmen, Peruvians and tourists.
While a mountain of chicken and beef fried rice with a good dousing of spring onion is 25 pesos, fresh and sumptuous cebiche for two is a very reasonable 35 pesos, and ordering those two dishes means you can easily get change from 100 pesos for two people, any time of day at Chan Chan.
Little Lima, I like what you’ve got to offer.
Next week, Little Quito.
Agüero 520, Abasto
Anchorena 571, Abasto
Hipólito Yrigoyen 1390,