What We Ate in Trujillo and Huanchaco
In Peru, Beach Days are Eating Days …
As our plane descended towards Trujillo, we could see fishing boats off the coast. This was just confirmation that we would be having delicious ceviche for a week.
When you ask Peruvians where's the best place to have ceviche, they often answer simply with "Trujillo."
However, when you ask exactly where in Trujillo, the response is often nebulous. For starters, Trujillo can either refer to the province or the capital of the province which is also the third largest city in Peru. Furthermore, sometimes people will use Trujillo as a shorthand for the entire Northern part of Peru which stretches all the way to Tumbes at the border between Peru and Ecuador.
When asked about ceviche in Lima, people are usually very precise, directing you to a specific restaurant and specifying the exact one if the restaurant has multiple locations. However, when I ask people where in Trujillo, memories seem to fade a bit. A common answer is along the lines of “I don’t remember exactly … it might have been near a beach.” This post is my attempt to be more specific.
After asking people over the years, I realized that when people say “Trujillo” has the best ceviche, oftentimes they actually mean Huanchaco, a beach town 12 km northwest of Trujillo. For the purpose of this post, I use ‘Trujillo’ to mean the region including the city and Huanchaco where we stayed.
I’ve long seen Trujillo as a big gap in my knowledge of Peru. A few years ago, I followed the “Ceviche trail1” from Piura to Mancora to Tumbes with a friend, but we didn’t quite have time for Trujillo so we flew directly to Piura. My company has a break between Christmas and New Year's which was just enough time to check out the region.
Our first stop was Big Ben restaurant which offers a panaromic view of the beach.
We started with the Marina Fría, a cold sampler which had ceviche, tiradito (ceviche with thinly sliced fish) with two sauces, pulpo olivo (octopus in olive sauce), and mini-crab causa (chilled mashed potatoes with mayonnaise and crab). This was top-notch and one of their signature dishes for a reason. The seafood was really fresh and the different components all had their own unique flavors.
We also ordered the conchas parmesana (parmesan scallops) which were decent and the arroz con mariscos which was disappointing. This was a bit of a theme throughout our time in Trujillo-the ceviche was spot on, but the other dishes that we generally enjoy with ceviche weren’t nearly at the same level.
A Day in Trujillo
We ended up spending only one full day in the city of Trujillo. The Plaza de Armas, the main square, was huge. In one small corner, we spent an hour watching dancers perform the marinera, a traditional dance with regional variations throughout Peru.
For lunch, it was difficult to pick just one spot for ceviche. In the end, we chose Dr. Chilcano. Their ceviche mixto was spectacular. The portions were generous-the menu says it feeds two, but it was plenty even for three. The leche de tigre struck a balance between the creaminess of the fish and the acidity of the lime. The ceviche was full Northern style-with chifles, zarandaja (beans), and yucca at the base.
The chilcano soup, the restaurant’s namesake, was not quite as good. The chilcano was packed with fresh seafood, but the broth could have been more developed.
We popped into Dulcería Doña Carmen, a traditional dessert shop a few blocks away. Mariela didn’t really like her dessert, a tres leches cake, but her mom was very happy with the Leche Asada (flan). In retrospect, it seems best to stick with Trujillo’s regional desserts like stuffed figs or Tajadón trujillano, an eggy dessert with honey, nuts, raisins, and Pisco.
The ceviche at El Caribe is listed by National Geographic as one of the best in the world. I have no idea how the rankings work. How many cevicherías did they try? There are so many cevicherías in Huanchaco, let alone, Peru. El Caribe is located in a nondescript building, slightly away from the main road that runs along the beach.
The ceviche pescado was one of the simplest ceviche I’ve had. The taste was very clean and the fish, ojo de ova, was very delicate. We got a little less fish than average for the price, but overall it didn’t seem that they let the fame get to their heads too much.
Following the theme of other cevichería classics not being on the same level of the ceviche, the chicharrón (fried fish pieces) was extremely salty (even by Peruvian standards).
Fish for Breakfast
We went to the Huanchaco market on Friday, but it turned out that Mariela’s mom was already an expert. She had been going everyday in the morning a couple of hours before we woke up. Like in the central market of Trujillo, there were not as many seafood stalls as expected. The best way to buy fresh fish in this town seems to be buying it directly from the fishermen.
I was surprised but not surprised that fried fish served with bread is a traditional breakfast in this region. Having grown up on Thai Chinese food, I was accustomed to eating fish first thing in the morning. In fact, I fondly associate it with memories of childhood weekends.
I headed to a market stall to give it a try. Unfortunately, it was New Year’s Eve and all of the Cabrilla, the fish normally used, had already been bought by local restaurants in preparation for the festivities. We had Pampanito instead which had less meat and was “fishier”. Next time, I’d probably go to one of the handful of restaurants along the beach that specialize in this traditional breakfast.
A taxi driver told us that locals prefer to eat in Moche, near the Huaca de la Luna ruins, since Huanchaco is a resort town and is more expensive. After following a recommendation to a literal dead end and passing on a restaurant that charged for admission, we settled on El Establo. It was quite a bit past the time for eating ceviche so we took the opportunity to try some other regional dishes.
I ordered the sopa teóloga, a “soup” that has strong ties to Moche. Its name translates to “Theological soup” or more colloquially, the priest’s soup, because Dominican theologians supposedly introduced this to Peru. It’s one of those regional dishes with many different ingredients so I was surprised to see it on an everyday menu. The “soup” consisted of chicken, pork, and an half egg served on a bed of chickpeas, lentils, and rice. The signature garnish is a circle of bread.
The soup is flavored with ají amarillo, oregano, and other spices, but this version seemed to be mostly flavored with salt. I’m sure that there are better versions of this elsewhere.
The meal we were perhaps looking forward to the most was Mococho. In addition to ceviche, it’s known for whole fish dishes including a signature dish with Chita smothered in pecans. We were saving it for our last lunch but discovered that it was closed. Later, on Instagram, I learned that the restaurant had unexpectedly closed just two days before. I hope the owner and the family behind the restaurant are doing okay and will one day revive the restaurant.
One Last Ceviche in Huanchaco
We had our final lunch of the trip at La Ola. We were also looking for a place that served both seafood and criolla dishes. It was about that time in the trip where Mariela reminds me that we’ve eaten almost only fish the last few days and that she’d like something heartier.
I ordered a ceviche was half conchas negras and half fish ceviche topped with grilled shrimp. I didn’t know there were conchas negras this far south. However, the waiter insisted they were able to get them locally. The conchas negras were good, but the shrimp were the real star; the natural sweetness and slightly charred flavor of the shrimp rounded out this ceviche nicely.
The sudado was beautifully cooked, and the cabrito was quite good as well (much better than the one we had in Moche).
El Buen Paladar
El Buen Paladar, an open-air food court, at the southern end of Huanchaco evokes childhood memories of beach boardwalk eats but with a Peruvian twist. There were two Picarones stalls, yelling boisterously, steering customers in their respective direction. Other stalls specialized in anticuchos and other variations of food-on-a- stick. The area is set up so that stalls can be easily swapped out. Thus, the offerings will vary, depending on when you go. For me, I would love a Pejerrey sandwich to take with me as we walk along the beach. However, Mariela reminds me, “that’s breakfast food.”
As the sun started setting and our vacation winded to an end, we ordered a plate of Picarones Especial which comes with a fig. The “Super Especial” comes with both a fig and cheese.
Trujillo as a Tourist Destination
The beaches in Northern Peru are not like those in the Caribbean. They are cold even in the summer and tend to be better for surfing than swimming. Even though we only dipped our toes in the ocean, it was relaxing to spend a week by the ocean. Huanchaco was a simple destination to explore which was welcome for us after a nomadic year. The layout is obvious-you just walk along the beach and stop whenever you feel like grabbing a bite.
In addition to the beach, a major draw of Trujillo is the ruins of the Moche, a civilization that flourished in the region around 100 to 700 AD. The most famous ruins is Chan Chan, but there are a number of other sites that you can explore. And don’t forget, the historic center of Trujillo is a beautiful area to walk around to admire the colonial architecture.
Trujillo as a Food Destination
Huanchaco has many cevicherías lining Calle Libertad, the main road that runs along the beach. Huanchaco is extremely easy to navigate; there’s no reason to have to walk more than a couple of blocks from the main street. Not surprisingly, the cevicherías along the beach that cater towards tourists are a bit more expensive than the ones in Trujillo. Many places in Huanchaco close early so it was nice that we rented an apartment where we could cook dinner.
One last piece of advice-if you want to taste Shambar2, Trujillo’s signature soup that combines a variety of beans and grains with crackling pork, make sure to stay Monday, the day this hearty soup is traditionally served! We had to head back to Lima so it’ll have to wait for our next visit.
Next time …
Next week, I’ll tell you about the best thing we had in Huanchaco (and it’s not ceviche!). I was originally intending to include it here, but I thought it deserved its own post.
In Ceviche Power, Gaston Acurio designates “la ruta de ceviche” as stretching from Tumbes to Tacna (more than 3000 kilometers) which means there’s ceviche along the entire coast of Peru!
For now, we’ll have to make do with the version at Siete Sopas which is also only served on Mondays, but it’s much closer to us-three blocks. Their version is delicious, but I’d like to try it in Trujillo one day.