Mid-Trip Favorite: Héctor Solís's La Picantería
Fresh fish served in a multitude of styles
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Mariela and I have tried at least a couple dozen cevicherías in Surquillo, but we had not made it to the granddaddy of them all, La Picantería.
La Picantería plays homage to picanterías, traditional eateries in Peru that serve hearty portions of simple dishes that are done well. The chef behind La Picantería, Héctor Solís, hails from Chiclayo, a town in Northern Peru. Thus, the menu draws equal inspiration from Northern Coast and Lima.
La Picantería revolves around the simple concept of ordering a fish and then choosing from a range of preparation styles.
La Picanteria is located in Surquillo, a neighborhood known for its market. Many tourists visit the market, but they don’t stay long enough to experience the gastronomic wonders of the neighborhood. To be fair, you’d have to devote more than a month to fully explore Surquillo. If I had to choose a neighborhood to do a food tour in, it would be Surquillo, hands down.
La Picantería is set inside a mansion that is much larger than it looks outside. There are several distinct spaces throughout the mansion. The main dining area is adorned by a startling display of the catches of the day.
Upstairs is a balcony area with a lot of natural light. Here there’s a large table that serves communal seating when there’s not a party as well as a few smaller tables and a pleasant sofa (where we sat).
In the middle of the space, there’s a brewery and prep area where you can watch a small crew prepare various components. We saw them baking large crackers and marinating whole ducks. This space piqued my curiosity. Like Fiesta, Hector Solis’s other Lima restaurant, La Picanteria feels like part restaurant, part laboratory for culinary ideas.
For your first visit, I would ignore the a la carte menu and just order a whole fish with 2-3 preparations. The fish available varies by the day, and there’s a limited selection each day. Once a type of fish is gone, it’s gone.
Many of the preparations sound deceivingly simple and are not all that different from what would be available on a standard cevichería menu. The preparations range from cooking the fish in garlic and butter to cooking the fish in a sudado, a stew of onions, tomatoes, and ají.
When we went, the following preparations were available.
Jaladito de Moche: salt-cured
Escabeche: marinated in vinegar, onion, and olives
Jalea Limeña: cut into pieces and fried
Jalea Chiclayana: fried and served in vinegar and achiote
A la parrilla: grilled and served with aji Camarillo sauce
Ajo y mantequilla: cooked in garlic and butter
Dulce y Picosa (Sweet and Spicy): in spicy tamarind sauce
Al Vapor: Steamed, in a broth of ginger and soy sauce
Salteado al Wok: stir-fried in a wok with soy sauce
Arroz Frito: fried rice
Arroz Pimentel: soupy rice with yellow pepper
Chilcano humeante: cooked in fish broth
Sudado Monsefu Hot: cooked in a stew of ají amarillo, cilantro, onions, and tomatoes
Usually in a cevichería, you aren’t blessed with such a large selection of fish. On the day we went, there were twelve different types of fish. Cevicherías will typically have a fish of the day and then a couple of other choices available. Some small cevicherías will specialize in one type of fish.
You order by the fish. The sizes of the fish available vary from day to day. Since they probably will not have a fish that is exactly the size you want, I recommend rounding up. For example, we wanted 1 kilogram but the smallest available fish was 1.2 kilograms.
La Picantería offers different fish, depending on the day. The price is by the fish, not by the dishes. You order the fish and then choose a few preparations.
The fish is priced by weight like it would be at a market. The most expensive fish, Lenguado, was priced reasonably, only a couple more soles per kilogram than some other fish.
What We Ordered
As we sat down, we were served a small bowl of soup. It was more substantial than the sip of chilcano that many cevicherías serve. It was kind of like the aguadito that traditional pollerías serve. We could taste the lime and the ají. We immediately knew we were settling down for a good meal.
It was a bit hard to choose the fish. Usually, you choose the everyday fish or the premium fish, knowing that either choice will be very fresh. I deferred to Mariela to choose a fish that would work well with both a cold and a hot preparation. We went with cabrilla, a fish that we sometimes cook at home but hadn’t had recently.
I wanted to taste the full range of the kitchen’s repertoire, but we were only two. We asked the kitchen to stretch the fish over not two but three preparations. We of course had to choose ceviche for the first preparation. We also chose to have the fish served as a saltado and in a sudado. About half of the meat in the fish went to the ceviche and the other half to the saltado. The sudado was mostly bones and little bits of fish. It served as a good palette cleanser. With more people, you could get bigger fish and potentially more dishes.
For drinks, we ordered a Pisco punch and a chilcano cocktail.
The execution and the freshness of the fish are what really sets La Picantería apart. The are many beautiful touches in the dishes served at La Picantería. I went into the meal thinking that the format was too simple, but I realized that the creativity was in all of the details.
The cabrilla tasted fresh, even by the already sky-high Peruvian standards. The fish tasted like it had been caught just moments before. La Picantería’s motto is “El product no es negociable or “[The quality of the] ingredients is not negotiable.” Institutions like La Picantería have close ties to the purveyors of fish and other ingredients which means they are able to serve such fresh ingredients that stand out even in a land blessed by fresh seafood.
The ceviche was bright and full of flavor. You can be sure that we finished every drop of the leche de tigre. It was easily one of the best ceviches I’ve had. And that’s coming from someone who eats ceviche almost every day.
Like with ceviche, saltados seem too simple to order in a restaurant (“can’t we just make that at home …”) until you have a truly good one. The first thing I noticed was that the sauce had substance—the thickness was between that of a gravy and a broth. The sauce was rich in flavor and had a depth that can only come from wok hei, the breath of a wok.
Previously, I’ve only had cheap saltado de pescado (fish stir-fries) in little beach huts along the Northern coast of Peru. I enjoy those stir-fries as a nutritious dinner, but the fish is often a little overcooked. The saltado at La Picantería demonstrates what is possible with a stir-fry. The fish was perfectly cooked, as were the vegetables.
The final course was more like a light soup than a full sudado which was perfect because we were quite full by this point. The soup was a milder version of the soup they served us when we sat down, bringing the meal to a full circle. There was no rice and a little less lime and ají. It was a comfortable way to wind down after a spectacular meal.
Unfortunately, the cocktails were not at the same level as the food. Our first impression was how massive the chilcano was. It was easily the size of two chilcanos.
The Pisco Punch was decent but the chilcano was a bit unbalanced and needed more simple syrup.
We’ll certainly be back. Experiencing one fish prepared in very different styles was a unique experience that I highly recommend. I personally found this style of ordering a refreshing counterpoint to tasting menus that zip through fifty-plus ingredients.
Sta. Rosa 388, Surquillo, 11:30 AM–5:30 PM except Mondays
Times Visited: (I had been to La Picantería a few years ago but I went by myself and didn’t have the full experience of ordering a whole fish)
Reservations: The reservation policy changes quite frequently which is one of the reasons we didn’t visit sooner. When we went, they seemed to have opened up new seating areas and were no longer taking reservations.
I would recommend either going right when they open to secure a table.
You can read more about Chef Hector Solís’s vision in his own words here.
Next time, we’d probably want to come with more people to try more cooking styles. Of course, we’d order the ceviche again, with a different fish just for variety. I’d like to try one or both of their jalea (fried fish).
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