Organ Grind: A South American Food Journal Part 6, Arequipa’s Frontlawn Restaurant
Clockwise from left: heart, corn, rocoto
The flower of Peru’s glory is at its highest peak of florid magnificence when the traveler steps outside the bounds of urban settlements. This can be difficult at times; the central yolk of most Peruvian cities is broken here and there and allowed to bleed out half-hazardly in all directions. These long urban tendrils generally act to subvert any good will brought about by the supposed charms of the city center; the prevailing leitmotif in these zones is impermanence, embodied perfectly by the exposed rebar jutting out of the tops of buildings built from sloppily masonried red brick or cinder block.
Arequipa, Peru’s second city, is no different, only the yolk is sturdier, resisting disintegration longer. However, when the inevitable corruption does occur, its all the more stark for the center’s singularity; after an earthquake destroyed most of the Spanish colonial buildings in 1868, it was reconstructed almost entirely of sillar, a porous, white volcanic rock extracted from the city`s seismically active environs. The result is unique and beautiful.
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There’s a neighborhood to the west of the city that manages to be visually distinct from the center while also resisting the insipid process of suburban putrification. Known as Yanahuara, it drapes itself casually over a small group of steep hills affording pigeons and humans alike a view of the city center and the migantic (majestic and gigantic) El Misti Volcano, whose snowcapped peak broods over the city at 19,101 ft above sea level.
La Jefa grillin’ some heart
Yanahuara’s main promenade is lined with restaurants offering middling food given a half-ass facelift and offered to tourists at drastically inflated prices, a tiresome trick that rarely hits paydirt where I´m concerned, or so I like to think. After perusing said options of an afternoon, I veered off Cuesta de Angel onto Lima Street heading south from the plaza when a woman`s hoarse voice shouted out to me from a bedraggled front lawn shaded by an unadorned, low house with peeling lime green paint. I peered over the wrought-iron fence at this woman who had disturbed my hunger-stressed reverie. She was perched behind a grill, turning beef heart skewers and doing something with a pot of boiling water set on a Primus stove. My eyes took in three red plastic tables and a cooler full of sugary drinks and bottled water. We exchanged proper salutations, after which I made myself at home at a table. I never pass up a beef heart skewer so I got me two of them, plus rocoto relleno. The rocoto chile is one of Peru’s culinary standard bearers; roundish, large and extremely spicy. Only the hardier of chile-philes could tuck into one untreated, so for the relleno dish the pepper is de-seeded and boiled in water and vinegar; thus disarmed of some of its potency, its dignity is further violated by the stuffing of chopped beef (or pork) and onion, garlic, ground nuts and whatever else is handy into its rotund cavity. Top with cheese and bake.
A simple, hearty, cheap meal eaten out of doors in the Peruvian sunlight and amongst kind and curious strangers is a vastly preferable way of luncheoning when set against sitting in doors surrounded by kitsch, shoving blah tourist fare in your face sold at prices hiked up like the skirts of the folkloric dancer plying her trade for the gringos on the plaza. Estelita is where it`s at.
Lima St., just south of the plaza