Born in the alleys of Lima’s barrio chino sometime after the turn of the 20th century, the Peruvian version of Chinese food was a fusion right from the start, a dazzling cross-cultural improvisation that blended Cantonese recipes with Andean accents.
When Chinese immigrants arrived in Peru to work on the country’s railroads in the late 1800s, they found themselves unable to obtain the ingredients needed to replicate their ancestral cuisine. Their solution: substitute locally grown spices and foodstuffs, creating a culinary hybrid that soon became wildly popular among Lima’s upper crust.
Today it’s an open secret that several Peruvian staples — lomo saltado and arroz chaufa among them — are originally Chinese concoctions, thus proving just how much Peru has profited from its diverse heritage.
Limeños nowadays tend to view chifa as inexpensive fare for the masses, similar to Chinese takeout in the U.S. But this is only half the story. Hidden away in obscure corners of Peru’s capital are top-ranked restaurants that remind visitors of the great culinary traditions that came to Peru with those distant immigrant ancestors. Most are well-known among locals; all are on a par with Peru’s best criollo establishments.
The following are some of the best places to sample this fascinating fusion cuisine. In every case, the food is exceptional, for prices comparable to what you’d pay for a midrange Chinese meal in the States. ¡Buen provecho!
Chifa San Joy Lao
This historic locale in Lima’s Chinatown is one of the oldest chifas in Peru. Founded in 1920 in the Calle Capon, it served as a festival hall for Chinese immigrants, complete with live orchestra and nightly dancing, before moving down the street to its present quarters. In 1999 it was refurbished by its current owner, Luis Yong, a master chef whose innovative spirit has garnered numerous accolades, including participation in Peru’s Mistura festival and a slot on Gastón Acurio’s culinary TV show.
At first glance, the menu may appear indistinguishable from those of the 6,000 other chifas scattered about Lima. But look carefully: many dishes are actually imaginative variants on chifa standards.
Instead of chi jau kay, for example—which is to Peru what kung pao chicken is to Chinese take-out joints in the U.S.—Yong has created chi jau cuy, rolls of guinea pig meat flash-fried and served with two sauces: one sweet, made from tamarinds, the other spicy. Also recommended: pescado San Joy Lao, a two-flavor fish in oyster and sweet and sour sauces, and pescado al vapor, whole fish in soy sauce that is fragrant with herbs and scallions.
When you order, be sure to check out the dim sum menu, which is outstanding, and always, always include a side of the chaufa especial, which more than lives up to its name. If you go without reservations during peak hours on Saturday, expect to wait an hour or more.
Jirón Ucayali 779
Barrio Chino (Lima Centro)
Lima foodies rave about this elegant spot tucked away on the ground floor of a San Isidro apartment building, frequently resorting to lavish superlatives: “the best Chinese food in Peru,” “renders all other chifas inedible,” and the like.
They’re not lying. Titi’s menu is extensive and varied, but what really makes it the standout it is is the fineness of the ingredients and the sheer skill of the preparation. Even the most pedestrian dishes here are exquisite: tallarin saltado with chicken and pork is subtly smoky and crackling with fresh vegetables, while kru yoc, the kitchen’s most requested plate, dresses crisp pork slices with a delicately sweet glaze.
The menu also features other dishes not found in all chifas. Duck lovers will swoon over pato a la miel, simply prepared in honey, as well as a more complex preparation with cashews, Chinese vegetables, and mushrooms. But for a real treat, stop by during lunchtime on Wednesday or Friday, when the restaurant serves chancho crocante, suckling pig served in the crispest, lightest coating imaginable.
A word about the schedule: Titi likes to make itself scarce: the kitchen is only open from 1 to 3 and 7 to 10:30 daily, so plan accordingly. Reservations are highly recommended, especially for lunch.
Av. Javier Prado Este 1212
Chifa Lung Fung
A casino may seem an unlikely place to find a low-key, elegant restaurant with top-notch food, but José Sam Cam, the owner of Lima’s historic Golden Palace, is as painstaking with his emporium’s cuisine as he is with the nightly games and diversions. As a result, this intimate eatery is the go-to spot for San Isidro bankers looking for a quiet place to wine and dine their clients.
The menu is less extensive than in other chifas, but nearly every dish is well executed. Hot pots are especially impressive: try the ones with mixed seafood or chicken and ginger. Also recommended: crystal shrimp stir-fried in white chili, and nabo encurtido, a cold vegetarian appetizer popular among Peruvians and made from pickled turnips and chili.
Those seeking traditional Cantonese (as opposed to Peruvian-Cantonese) cuisine will find much to choose from here. Peking duck and steak on a hot plate with vegetables are old standbys, lovingly prepared. The prices are somewhat high by Lima standards, but the finesse of the preparation gives diners an ample return on their investment.
(inside Golden Palace Casino)
Av. República de Pánama 3165