The king of Peruvian street food has made its way indoors.
Hearts have history in Peru, you know. They say that when Pizarro and his malnourished band of 168 midnight marauders landed on the Pacific shore in the early 16th century, famished from a long journey down from Panama, the Incas floated out on balsa wood rafts and greeted them with the finest foods of the empire: heaping mountains of exotic fruit, jugs of a boozy purple potion called chicha, and a mixed grill of skewered llama parts—rosy loin, stringy leg, and, of course, chewy planks cut from that great big box of love.
Five hundred years and ten million souls later and the heart beats on in Peru. Anticuchos may be a catch-all term for skewered and grilled animal parts (in Quechua, it literally means “cut stew meat”), but ask any God-fearing omnivore what meat on a stick really means and they’ll tell you it’s all about the cow heart. You’ll find it everywhere these days: at fast-food joints and family restaurants, on supermarket shelves as Lay’s newest flavor experiment, and in Lima’s most sacred dining temples, where it plays as highfalutin fodder for $100 tasting menus. One night we ate a deconstructed anticucho that involved thousands of dollars of machinery and a kitchen squad of 20 to prepare. Which is ridiculous, of course, because the anticucho formula endures precisely because it is so caveman-simple: heart + stick + fire = primal fits of joy. The Incas knew it, dammit, as do hundreds of keepers of the flame, from the sweatiest jungle outpost to the iciest Andean extreme. Somewhere in between you’ll find Tia Grimanesa, one of the country’s most beloved skewer sorceresses, doing it the way it’s always be done.
Tia no longer sells her heart on street corners. After years of clogging up the sidewalks of Miraflores, Tia was essentially forced into a real space. Predictably, people bemoan the shiny new storefront, the same way they abandon a fringe band once they get a little ink. “It’s just not the same as it used to be. On the street, it was a hundred times better,” one guy told me as we waited for our numbers to be called. I won’t deny that there is something about the cocktail of spoiler exhaust and stray dogs and skewered beef that just feels so damn right. My first anticuchos were eaten next to a trash heap on the side of the highway in Huaraz, 10,000 feet up in the Cordillera Blanca, so it’s hard to imagine what one would even do with a knife and fork if given the option.
But it’s not like Tia has made any concessions to the types of people who only dine inside brick and mortar; as far as I could tell, there weren’t even napkins, let alone something you might describe as a restaurant amenity. It’s meat, stick, veg and sauce. And to wash it down? Nothing but Inca Kola, that neon yellow bubble gum extract that keeps the Peruvian dental industry humming.
Still, it takes quite a bit of finesse to turn an organ—even one as agreeable as the heart—into something people line up around the block to eat. That means a good dose of vinegar to loose those tight muscle fibers. It means spice—garlic, mostly, plus crushed cumin seeds—to mask the gentle funk and tease out the best in the beef. And since this is Peru, it also means ají. Tia Grima’s version of the ubiquitous sauce is as fruity as it is fiery, the lovely floral notes a dangerous masking agent for gringos like me who dip too deeply and pay the price later.
Indoors or not, the Inca Kola is still sweet enough to double as novocaine, the fire still hot enough to scorch you at three paces, and the meat juicy enough to dribble uncontrollably down your chin as you search for the napkin that never was.