It can be difficult to stand out in Boston’s diverse dining scene. But three very different Peruvian restaurants are doing just that, planting Peru’s flag in the hub of New England.
Peruvian restaurants come in very different shapes and sizes, partly because the cuisine is remarkably diverse, extensive, and versatile. In the blink of an eye, the ingredients found in a traditional ceviche could be easily transformed from haute cuisine to a family dinner — or they can even be fused with a Japanese dish to make an original creation. Each of the 30-plus Peruvian restaurants in Greater Boston has its own story, and more importantly, its own purpose in their respective community. Three of these restaurants – Celeste, Rincon Limeño, and Taranta — serve as proof of the cuisine’s innately dynamic nature.
The youngest of the bunch, Celeste, has already caused quite a buzz. A cozy 600-square-foot space in Somerville, the restaurant only opened last year to rave reviews. Esquire’s 2018 list of the best new restaurants in America ranked Celeste fifth out of 20. The menu is simple — traditional dishes and traditional ingredients, but their presentation is quite different. Small plates and a minimalist setting invite American diners to experience Peruvian food through the lens of an upscale dining experience. As of publication, the wait for a table is more than two months, according to JuanMa Calderon, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Maria Rondeau. But Calderon and Rondeau haven’t let all the positive press faze them. Their restaurant is like their home, partly because that’s how they got started.
“We would just invite friends over to our apartment for dinner, and as the word got out, more and more people started to show up,” Calderon said in Spanish. “It reached a point where we decided to make a Facebook page for our own home.”
When Calderon moved to Boston from New York in 2001, he said he couldn’t even imagine seeing a Peruvian community grow in the city. But, across town in Eastie and in the North End, there were others who were experiencing the same fears.
When Emilia Mercedes Vargas moved to East Boston from Lima, Peru, she began to feel isolated from the rest of the world.
“We moved here in 1979, so it was just me, my brother, and my children — no other Peruvians,” Vargas, 60, said in Spanish. “We were so scared. I was so scared.”
Vargas is a chef at Eagle Hill’s Rincon Limeño, a restaurant that like Celeste also offers traditional Peruvian fare. But unlike the refined Celeste, Rincon Limeño’s plates are cheap and heaping. The dining room is long, built for efficiency and almost always filled to the brim with South American families watching soccer and enjoying their food.
The restaurant opened in the ‘90’s as Mi Peru, a pioneer for Boston’s fledgling Peruvian community. Vargas, who has been at the location since its beginning, said that when she looks out into the dining room, she forgets she is in Boston.
“It’s like I’m home again,” she said, holding back tears. “It feels nice to know that what I am doing is more than making food. I’m building a sense of community.”
Just as Rincon Limeño was getting its start, Jose Duarte was opening the doors to Taranta, his new Italian restaurant in the North End. It started as just another Italian restaurant, serving dishes from the south of Italy. Duarte, who was born in Peru, appreciated the cuisine because it is the product of various cultures.
“The food from Southern Italy is not just Italian. There are Spanish influences, Arabic influences, it’s just a delicious mixture of cultures,” Duarte said in Spanish. “That’s what drew me towards experimentation.”
One day, when business was at a low, Duarte began playing with Peruvian ingredients. He made gnocchi out of boiled yuca, which is traditionally used to make yuca sancochada, a hearty dish. Slowly, he began adding Peruvian sauces and ingredients to his menu, and diners fell in love. When asked what he was doing differently, he would purposefully respond with vague answers, scared of the backlash he might get. Eventually, Taranta rebranded as a fusion restaurant, a pioneer in Peruvian-Italian dining.
“There’s a striking harmony between Peruvian ingredients and Italian dishes,” Duarte said. “It was bold for us to do this in the heart of Boston’s Italian community, but it worked.”
Since then, Taranta has been hailed as one of Boston’s finest restaurants, earning praise from the father of global Peruvian cuisine, Gastón Acurio. Acurio is known for the restaurant franchise Astrid & Gastón, which opened in Lima in 1994. Since then, he has built a restaurant empire across the world and is largely considered to be the reason why Peru’s cuisine is a modern global phenomenon. In 2012, Acurio opened a restaurant that similarly fused Peruvian dishes with Italian cuisine. When critics commended his creativity, he took to social media to ensure that Duarte received credit for the innovation.
Duarte has been sure to keep the authenticity of Peru’s culture at the forefront of his business. Each year, he leads his staff on an intensive workshop to Peru, teaching them about the ingredients they use and the culture they are adopting in the kitchen. Duarte’s passion for sustainability has also connected the restaurant to his culture in a distinct way. Apart from doing things such as recycling cooking oil and trying to save water, Duarte likes to ensure that his staff knows about the ingredients being used so that they can accurately explain to customers what they are eating and where it’s from.
A cuisine born out of crisis
Since the 1950s, the United States has been a safe haven for many Peruvians. Whether they were escaping political oppression or just trying to find jobs, the Peruvian diaspora has been silently spreading across both coasts, settling in states like California and New Jersey. Despite this, the population is still considered to be a very small one, with less than 500,000 Peruvians residing in the United States as of 2018.
“The phenomenon with Peruvian cuisine stems from an urgency to survive,” said Jorge Durand, a Peruvian professor and researcher at the University of Guadalajara, in Spanish. “It is a cuisine born out of crisis.”
Durand connects Peru’s political crisis under leaders like Alan García (1985-1990) and Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) with two distinct phenomena, the first being a sudden dedication to Peruvian ingredients and cuisine.
“People were suddenly living in an increasing state of poverty, and the country was coming out of a period of increased globalization into a sudden state of national isolation and repression,” Durand said. “Out of necessity, the country began innovating and creating with the ingredients that could be found within their borders. Recipes and ingredients from the Andes were more commonplace, and the cuisine that was once like a household’s secret recipe began to evolve nationally.”
According to Durand, that same political repression pushed more than 43 percent of the population out of the country and into the world. Despite being a small country, Peru has one of the highest rates of migrant dispersion across the world.
“There are Peruvians everywhere,” Durand said. “It’s really why the cuisine is so prevalent and popular, and why it’s so constantly fused with the food of other nations.”
Now, with Central America in turmoil, he sees the same phenomenon taking place.
“Just go to Spanish harlem and you’ll be able to get a burrito at a Dominican restaurant,” he said with a laugh.
Back at Rincon Limeño, manager Sandra Giraldo has noted the effects of the phenomenon. Giraldo’s father, Alfonso, purchased the restaurant after immigrating to the United States from his home country of Colombia, boldly choosing to run a restaurant that served food he wasn’t initially familiar with.
“It was a learning curve,” said Sandra in Spanish. “We’d have to take road trips to New Jersey and New York to get our ingredients. Slowly but surely, the community has grown and so has the accessibility to resources.”
Duarte and Calderon agree. When Taranta began serving Peruvian-inspired dishes, the ingredients used weren’t fresh. It took a lot of work to get regular access to the ingredients needed. When Calderon served food out of his home, he’d need to plan the dishes weeks in advance so he could have time to get the right ingredients as well. When Celeste opened last year, the problem wasn’t much of a problem anymore.
“There are delivery services and actual stores that sell the products we need,” said Calderon. “It’s different than how it used to be.”
For decades, Peruvian chefs across the world have been making a name for their country’s cuisine. Tokyo, France, Sydney, and New York barely scratch the surface of cities that have fallen under the charming spell of dishes like ceviche, lomo saltado, and arroz chaufa. Now, Boston can be added to that list. With their presence in Boston now established, Boston’s Peruvian restaurateurs are looking ahead. Taranta’s Duarte is doubling down on his dedication to sustainability and plans to work with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to open a sustainable restaurant in Chelsea dedicated exclusively to Peruvian food. A few years back, Rincon Limeño expanded its space, and will be commemorating its 20th anniversary this fall — welcoming the community it helped build for a massive, food-filled celebration. Meanwhile at Celeste, Calderon and his wife are constantly working to make their food as authentic and accessible as possible, eyeing the possibility of growth and collaboration with other businesses.
“Look at Italian cuisine 100, 200 years ago, when it went global,” Duarte said. “That’s what’s happening with Peru today.”
Chris Triunfo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.