The Cusco Conundrum
Finding the best meals in Cusco
Here’s an excerpt from an e-mail sent to me from Drew, a paid subscriber:
That's great to hear that you spent so much time here, especially initially. It's easy to get overwhelmed by the pollerias on every corner and of course the abundance of restaurants in the main square. I was wondering if there are any particularly special Cusquenan recipes/dishes I should make sure to try and if there are any places that you've especially loved.
I’ve definitely encountered this myself. There is a dizzying array of choices in Cusco, but at the same time, it feels hard to find a place to eat where you don’t feel like you’re being taken advantage of.
The tough part of eating in Cusco is that many of the restaurants near the main square are aimed at tourists and are pricey while the restaurants in local neighborhoods tend to compete on price while sacrificing quality. It’s hard to find a happy medium. This is what I’ve started calling the “Cusco Conundrum.”
I’ve found that eating out in Lima is often less expensive than eating out in Cusco. Eating out in Cusco for a typical 3-5 day visit probably wouldn’t ruin your budget, but finding regular spots for longer stays can be challenging.
I thought I’d share my reply to Drew with all of you:
Here are some regional dishes in Cusco that you should try:
Let me start with the most epic dish—Chiriuchu. It’s a dish that was created to highlight the wealth of the Incan Empire by including ingredients from all over Peru in one dish. The impressive ingredient list includes cuy (guinea pig), chorizo, gallina (hen), huevas de pescado (fish eggs), cecina (dried meat), cheese, and seaweed.
It’s a dish that’s typically served in June for Corpus Christi. However, I had a good version at La Cusqueñita. It’s a touristy restaurant (they have a free dance show as part of the experience), but the food was good.
K’apchi de setas is another quintessentially Cusquenan dish. It’s a hearty dish of mushrooms (setas), cheese, fava beans, and herbs cooked in milk. It’s best enjoyed during the wet season (November-April) when the mushrooms are in full bloom.
Cusco is a good place to enjoy chicharrón, large chunks of pork braised in spices and then fried. It is usually served with salsa críolla, mote (boiled corn), potatoes, and fresh sprigs of mint.
Chairo is the soup to try. It has chuño (dehydrated potatoes which is a bit of an aquired taste) along with peas, carrots, lima beans, mint, oregano, and meat (tripe, lamb, or beef). Sopa de Quinoa is another lighter, nutritious soup that I like.
If you want to try cuy (guinea pig), Cusco is a much better place to try it than waiting until you get to Lima. I write about the different types of cuy and where to try it here.
Since Cusco is far from the coast, it’s best to stick with trucha ceviche (trout ceviche). I noted one exception below. Fried trout is another staple.
Cusco has its own version of rocoto relleno (stuffed pepper) that unlike the Arequipa version is breaded and fried. I tried it with a local friend at the end of an alley so unfortunately I don’t remember the exact location.
Here are some spots I like. I divided it into a touristy list and a more local list. You’ve probably been in Cusco long enough to jump to the local list, but I usually advise that people start with the touristy list first as they get acclimated. The touristy places are more expensive but they also wash vegetables with purified water and are more careful with refrigeration.
Inka Grill is a good place to start trying classic Peruvian dishes. You’re paying main square prices, but the portions are large and the food is well-made. (I’m biased because this is one of the places where I learned to cook Peruvian food).
Uchu is a fun place to try Alpaca and other meats grilled on stones.
Per.uk is a nice cafe/bar with fusion dishes including ones that feature a lot of vegetables which is sometimes hard to come by when eating criolla food.
La Cusqueñita, mentioned above, has one of the best selections of regional dishes.
If you can’t wait until to Lima to start enjoying ceviche, check out Ceviche Seafood Kitchen in Plaza de Armas. It’s the closest thing to a Lima-style cevichería I’ve seen in Cusco (I think they fly in their fish).
Bacco is a Mediterranean restaurant featuring wonderfully cooked meat and vegetable dishes.
La Republica del Pisco and Huaringas Bar are two good bars to try Pisco cocktails. La Republica del Pisco has a wider selection including inventive house cocktails.
Fuego had the best burger we tried in Cusco. The pizza also tends to be really good because they use clay ovens to cook them.
Now, here’s a few, more local places:
Q’ori Sara is a local lunch place with a daily menu. If it hasn’t changed since I went, I think it’s the best bang for your buck in Cusco. We paid ten soles for a filling, multi-course lunch. We even captured it on video.
La Chomba (Avenida Tullumayo 339) is a local spot where you can order Lechon with Tamal, Chicharron, or Cuy al Horno.
There’s an Anticuchos vendor (look for the smoke) on Avenida de Sol that’s among the best anticuchos I’ve had anywhere.
One place that I didn’t get to go to because of the constantly changing hours of operation is Quinta Eulia. Many locals go there and it features dishes like chairo and rocoto relleno. It’s at the very top of my list of places I want to visit next time in Cusco.
I recommend visiting San Pedro market at least once, but I prefer the less touristy Wanchaq Market.
If you can, I would suggest spending more time Sacred valley and exploring some of the food there. That’s a whole other list!
Don’t get me wrong. I had a great time in Cusco. It’s where my journey to learning about Peruvian food started. The above is written from the perspective of a hungry traveler. Many of the truly great meals I had in Cusco were at the home of friends.
I also got to know many of the restaurant owners and chefs in Cusco and know that their passion runs deep. You just have to spend the time to find restaurants that aren’t just trying to profit from the surplus of one-time customers.
I realize that not everyone has the time to do the research. That’s why I want to help people like you make every meal in Peru count with this largely free blog and my guidebook.
If you want to help support my work, please consider being a paid subscriber or buying my guidebook (there’s a whole section devoted to Cusco with photos and longer descriptions).
Paid subscribers can pick my brain about where and what to eat in Peru. I try to answer questions from everyone in the comments, but paid subscribers get priority.