Just a decade ago, Austin had barbecue and Tex-Mex restaurants as far as the eye could see — and not much else. But as the city continues to rapidly expand, its food options are more diverse now than ever before. This especially applies to the recent flood of Peruvian restaurants, thanks to talented chefs working with new ingredients and ideas.
Peru’s diverse cuisine is a true melting pot of flavors and techniques, influenced first by indigenous Incans; then by Spanish conquest and African slaves; and in more recent centuries by immigrants from Italy, Germany, France, China, and Japan. A variety of peppers (ranging from sweet to hot) are essential in many Peruvian dishes, as are potatoes, corn, rice, and beans.
Beyond that, Peru’s local cuisine has also always been quite dependent on native ingredients from three different biodiverse regions: the Andes Mountains, the Amazon Basin, and the coast. Now, central Texas is providing a whole new palette of possibilities for Peruvian interpretations, both traditional and modern.
Contemporary Peruvian restaurant Yuyo opened in Austin in late October. It’s courtesy of the El Chile Group (parent company of various Mexican spots, like El Chile, El Alma, and Alcomar). The restaurant, which is clad in Andean tapestries and woven baskets, features fresh takes on traditional dishes, plus made-to-order ceviche from a raw bar and handcrafted Peruvian cocktails.
Executive chef Maribel Rivero spent two years working at the best restaurants in Peru after she graduated from the Culinary Institute of America’s Latin program in San Antonio. There was her time at Malabar with chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, and at Restaurante Central (currently the No. 5 best restaurant in the world) under chef Virgilio Martínez.
During this period, Rivero also worked side by side with Martínez in his culinary research lab, assisting him on his first cookbook, Lima the Cookbook: Peruvian Home Cooking, and wrote about gastronomy for South American website Como Sur.
“Peru thrives on its cuisine,” said Rivero. “A day would not go by without talking about food to my taxi drivers, market vendors, and friends.”
Rivero’s brother Carlos, the restaurateur behind El Chile, inspired her to turn this love of Peru and its cuisine into an Austin-based restaurant. And though fresh seafood is a focus of the menu (yuyo translates to “seaweed”), the country’s diverse culinary landscape is represented by a variety of different dishes.
“The Pacific Ocean provides fresh seafood parallel to the quality found in Japan," said Rivero. “The Amazon offers exotic fruits, vegetables, and river fish. The Andes features tuber crops, and the high and lowlands offer unique ajíes [chile peppers].”
At Yuyo, diners experience this foodscape through street-food options like charcoal-grilled anticuchos (skewers), classic dishes like lomo saltado (beef tenderloin stir-fry) and pollo a la brasa (grilled chicken with chiles and herbs), plus plenty of vegetarian options, like grilled Andean corn, papa criolla (Peruvian potatoes), and the lentils traditionally eaten for good luck on Mondays.
Yuyo is the latest restaurant in a growing number of Peruvian options that have opened in Austin over the past few years. La Chaparrita was the first, launching a humble counter-service operation in Highland Mall in 2010.
When Austin Community College took over the entire complex, owner Susana Osorio revamped the restaurant in 2015 into Lima Criolla by adding full service and a pisco bar. The restaurant, which focuses on homestyle classic dishes and frequently hosts live music performances and events, has become a hub for the Peruvian community throughout Texas.
“There was not a single Peruvian restaurant in Austin,” said Osorio. “Now some are following the trend and I feel so happy about that.”
Real estate broker Miguel Barrutia opened Llama’s Peruvian Creole trailer in 2012, in downtown Austin, to share his family’s cuisine with the city. Just this year, he expanded to a second trailer farther east on 7th Street.
“Seeing my friends truly enjoy my mom’s cooking while growing up,” said Barrutia, “created a passion for sharing Peru’s food. Also, Peruvian cuisine coming up in the world gave me the itch — I didn’t want to miss the boat.”
Chef Julio-Cesar Flórez developed Llama’s opening menu, which now ranges from traditional dishes like ají de gallina (pulled chicken in yellow pepper sauce) to chifa (Peruvian-Chinese) treats like steamed bao with different fillings to ice cream made with Andean fruit lúcuma.
Zaplana attempted to bring his Peruvian touch to downtown restaurants Malaga and Isla, but both closed. These days, he is the sous chef at Japanese sushi restaurant Lucky Robot. He’s been introducing diners to a different side of his native country with nikkei (Japanese-Peruvian) dishes like potato mash with ají amarillo, fresh hamachi, crispy salmon skin, and sesame Kewpie mayo.
“Austin is ready for more Peruvian food — people love it,” said Flórez. “People here don't really know the cuisine, but that takes time.” The more restaurants and trailers celebrating the South American cuisine open up, the more people are aware of the possibilities.
Llama’s alum David Florez opened Ceviche7 near campus in 2015. The trailer specializes in fresh ceviche and a few other Peruvian staples, like pan con chicharrón (a pork and sweet potato sandwich) and arroz chaufa (Peruvian fried rice).
Peruvian trailer Killa Wasi launched just this fall, found in a bright-blue truck on Airport Boulevard. Chef and owner Kati Luedecke traveled to Peru in 2013, where she fell in love with the country’s people and cuisine. That inspired her to open her own establishment with the goal of making Peruvian food more accessible to Austin.
Before opening, Luedecke brought her whole staff down to Peru to taste what she calls “the best food I’ve ever had in my life,” and to really understand the flavors she wants to create in Austin.
At Killa Wasi, Central Texas ingredients come together as modern Peruvian interpretations like veggie “ceviche” with plantain chips and the Doña Lima (confit pork sandwich with tomato rocoto pepper jam, salsa criolla, and avocado). Weekday breakfast and brunch bring unique options like quinoa pancakes with chancaca syrup, smoked trout with yucca home fries, and vegetable picadillo with a five-minute egg.
“Killa wasi means ‘moon house,’ and Mama Killa is the Inca deity to women and the martyr of time,” explained Luedecke, pointing to the logo. “The moon encompasses all four regions of Peru — you have the ocean, the Amazon, the desert, and the mountains.”
Luedecke and her all-female staff also host regular pop-ups, featuring focused food from the Amazon, Nazca, Lima, the coast and beyond. And until Killa Wasi’s pisco garden opens, the truck is bring-your-own-alcohol, with set-ups for guava mimosas and Bloody Martín. They are also in the process of transforming the roof of the bus into an edible garden, as well as working on a spiced chicha morada beer collaboration with Elgin’s female-owned Osmo’s Daughter Brewing Co.
Peruvian food can even be found outside Austin proper. Up in Wells Branch, Inka Chicken specializes in pollo a la brasa, with sides like fried plantains, black beans, and cilantro rice. Round Rock has Quinoa Grill, which opened last winter. It serves both traditional dishes and contemporary interpretations with a healthy twist, like a quinoa grain burger, and an Andean salad with lima beans, quinoa, and lime vinaigrette.
“It’s not just Peruvians wanting to share the cuisine anymore,” said Barrutia. “We now have projects by a diverse group who all appreciate and love Peru’s cuisine. Peru’s boat is gaining momentum.”