Tips for Eating at Menús in Lima, Peru
By: Zach Diamond
In addition to being a great way to try traditional Peruvian dishes for cheap, eating at menús provided a glimpse into the life of the Peruvian working class. Like grabbing morning bagels in New York, or tacos from a street stall in Mexico City, the working class of Lima flocks to menús during lunchtime to eat quickly and affordably. While I never had a particularly bad experience eating at a menú, some were definitely better than others. Here are some tips I picked up while in Lima for finding the best spots.
The Louder and More Crowded, the Better
In the United States, there is a gratifying feeling in finding the hidden gem of a restaurant, the empty hole-in-the-wall offering delicious and undiscovered food. However, when it comes to menús, I do not recommend this strategy. Being that there are no Yelp reviews or PR strategies, the tried and true method of knowing if a place is good is by seeing how many people are in it. Lively spots with shoulder-to-shoulder congestion fill up for a reason, and the same goes for the empty place next door. Therefore, while walking down the street looking for lunch, follow the chatter. The best menús I ate tended to be the ones where customers shouted their orders at servers as they walked by and sitting at a table with strangers was a given. I also like to use the amount of folks in a restaurant as a makeshift sanitation score. People don’t return to restaurants that got them sick!
Talk to Strangers
As a solo American traveler, I stood out quite obviously in the crowd. Frequently, my tablemates chuckled to themselves when I mispronounced the name of a dish or didn’t understand the server. However, instead of being ashamed, I used their acknowledgement as an opportunity to start conversation. Almost always, people were interested in where I was from, why I was in Lima, and what my thoughts were on Peruvian food. I found that sharing pictures of my friends and family that I kept in my wallet was a means to establishing a common grounds, and, on several occasions, my lunch ended up being much longer than anticipated because of the connections I made. I also found that asking for recommendations for what to order helped me figure out which dishes were worth trying. Instead of pulling out my flashy iPhone to Google names of dishes, it was more rewarding to ask the people around me what was what. In instances that I couldn’t quite understand what they were describing, I just asked if it was tasty, put my trust in them, and figured it out when the dish arrived.
Try New Things
While this can certainly be daunting to some folks, I highly recommend trying foods that you might not be so eager to eat back at home. Yes, roasted chicken with rice and beans is hard to mess up, but when else are you going to be able to try spiced tripe (mondongo italiano) or grilled beef heart (anticuchos)? When someone at your table recommends ordering something out of your comfort zone, I say go for it, and worst case scenario you waste a couple bucks and you grab a snack somewhere else afterwards.
Eat Hot Food and Avoid the Lettuce
I tend to be a bit frivolous when it comes to worrying about getting sick from food, but it is true that places offering menús don’t have any form of regulated sanitation. Additionally, tap water in Lima is not safe to drink, and I doubt that most vendors use bottled or filtered water to wash their veggies. I never got sick eating at a menú, but I do understand people’s concerns. To be better safe than sorry, I recommend eating hot food like soups and stews and avoiding raw, unpeeled veggies like lettuce. On several occasions, I broke this rule and was fine. But, I understand if you don’t want to be like me. If you do want to push the envelope like I do, check out this guide here.