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Try This Delicious, Authentic Peruvian Fare In Lincoln Square

By Anthony Todd in Food on Sep 22, 2015 2:35PM

Crab Causitas. Photo via Facebook.

Chicago isn't exactly awash in Peruvian restaurants. Aside from the high-profile opening of Tanta, the celebrity chef-version of Peruvian food in River North, I can't remember the last time I read about Peruvian-inspired cuisine in the city (though I'm told that some influences might be found in the soon-to-open Latinicity). That's why, as a lover of ceviche, I was so excited to go to Via Lima, which opened in Lincoln Square (or North Center, depending on where you place the boundary) in late June.

Located right on Lincoln Avenue, Via Lima is a warm, welcoming space complete with a bustling open kitchen. The menu is complex and comprehensive, with sections reflecting all of the different world cuisines (Japanese, African, Chinese, Colonial Spanish) that have influenced Peru throughout the years.

That's actually the defining characteristic of Peruvian food: the fusion of flavors—and not in the Asian-fusion mall restaurant in 1998 kind of way, but an actual fusion of flavors created through violence, migration and cultural integration. Unfortunately, judging by the 15 minute monologue the server used to walk us through the menu, this variety occasionally confuses guests.

While it may confuse others, my solution (which I highly recommend) was to ignore everything and order one thing from each section of the menu. Start with a tasting of all three ceviches, including a savory, spicy option made with rocoto, the Peruvian hot pepper.

Ceviche at Via Lima. Photo via Facebook.

Peruvian food brings together a unique combination of acid and spice, and it's more likely to cause you to pucker up your mouth than to set your tongue on fire. Many spots back away from this to appease the American palate, serving up ceviche that's only slightly tarter than salad dressing with the barest hint of a kick from a single slice of pepper artfully resting on top. Not at Via Lima; their leche de tigre (the marinade that holds the ceviche together) was pitch perfect.

Beef heart anticuchos, served on a skewer, are part of the "African" inspired section of the menu, and are rubbed with garlic and cumin. The $12 appetizer included a huge, meaty portion, and was enough to serve as an entree for any steak lover, with that slightly metallic tang that identified it as offal rather than filet. Pair it with crab causitas, a whipped potato bite with a savory crab salad on top for a lighter touch.

It wouldn't be a night of Peruvian food without a few rounds of Pisco sours, and Via Lima's didn't disappoint. Depending on which side of the border you ally yourself with, Pisco is a product of Peru or Chile, and bars in Lima are absolutely fanatical about crafting a perfect pisco sour.

A combination of tart citrus, pisco, a touch of bitters and a healthy dollop of egg white, the pisco sour is a drink that can cut through the spice and acid of the food without ruining your palate. I particularly enjoyed (read: Had too many of) a variation that included simple syrup infused with habanero peppers, which brought the flavor of the pepper without making me run for water fountain like a cartoon animal who accidentally ate the bottle of hot sauce.

Grilled octopus at Via Lima. Photo via Facebook.

The servers will attempt to steer you towards the lomo saltado, which admittedly is one of the staples of Peruvian food. Here's the thing: it's not bad, it's just that there are much more interesting things on the menu than this Chinese-inspired combination of beef tenderloin, soy, tomatoes and potatoes. Grab the seared octopus (huge chunks of marinated octopus served with huge-kernal Peruvian corn called "choclo") or save room for the decadent sweet potato/pumpkin beignets. And when the server offers an after-dinner drink of blood orange liqueur, just say yes.