Over the last couple of years, Rio de Janeiro’s food scene has experienced a Peruvian invasion. Encouraged by the buzz of the 2016 Olympic Games, more than 10 restaurants and bars focused on Peruvian cuisine opened up shop in Rio. But many of those spots are fine dining establishments, plating up the kind of sophisticated cuisine found in Lima – the capital of Peru is a culinary powerhouse and one of the best places to eat in the world.
But there are exceptions. We stumbled on one in an old house in the Botafogo neighborhood. At this restaurant, called Pop up Peru, there are no fancy decorations, nor any kind of complex contemporary recipes. Even Lima’s influences are conspicuously absent. While sitting at the spartan tables, the only thing we find are plain but extremely tasty Peruvian recipes from the city of Arequipa, one of the oldest colonial cities in South America.
Arequipa is the hometown of Giancarlo Valdivia, the chef and co-owner of Pop up Peru. Living in Brazil for less than two years, Giancarlo first showcased his talents as a chef by preparing Peruvian meals at Rio food fairs. During one of these events he met Sandra Farias, a young carioca working as a food entrepreneur. They became friends and decided to rent an old house in Botafogo where they could host their own culinary events. The idea was a good one – their events always drew a crowd – and it didn’t take long for Giancarlo and Sandra to decide to use the house as a real restaurant. Now, Pop up Peru offers delivery food every day and serves diners in house on the weekends.
“Our idea was to bring some of the more popular Peruvian food culture to Rio.”
The place is exceptionally charming: the very old colorful colonial house has high ceilings and a creaky wooden floor. The decoration is simple, mostly pictures of Peru and Peruvian posters and mismatched chairs and tables. And on a hot summer day, having lunch at Pop up Peru can be a sacrifice of sorts – there’s no air conditioning. But we think it’s worth it, as the food is really out of this world.
Working alone in an improvised kitchen set up in the backyard, Giancarlo prepares wonders (Sandra, her mother and a helper take care of making the drinks, serving the clients, cleaning the dishes and everything else). One of those is the special ceviche that mixes fresh tilapia and passion fruit. It is by far the best ceviche we’ve ever had. Here, the lomo saltado, another traditional – and popular – Peruvian recipe, becomes something exceptional. The stir-fry of marinated strips of sirloin, onions, tomatoes and french fries is full of flavor, and the meat is particularly succulent, as soft as a filet mignon steak. But the dish that has drawn crowds in the past few months is the arroz com marisco, seafood rice. There’s no surprise twist in the recipe – Giancarlo uses shrimp, mussels and squid as his proteins. It’s his secret mix of sauces, herbs and spices that wows us.
We also like tiraditos (the popular “Peruvian sashimi” in a spicy sauce) and arroz chaufa, fried rice mixed with eggs, vegetables and meat, a classic dish from Peru that shows the influence of Chinese immigrants on that country’s cuisine. “Our idea was to bring some of the more popular Peruvian food culture to Rio, as the sophisticated restaurants are already very well known by the cariocas,” explains Giancarlo. “We want people from Rio and foreigners who never tried Peruvian food to share this experience with us.”
To drink, Pop up Peru again focuses on the traditional, although all are impeccable: the famous pisco sour (perfectly made with an egg white foam) and chicha morada, a cold non-alcoholic beverage made with purple corn and spices. As we sip the latter on one of Rio’s hot summer days, we don’t even notice the absence of air conditioning (almost).