We had old friends visiting this week. Old friends who were new to San Miguel. So we were faced with the decision as to where to go for lunch. We have about five go to places. The old standbys we call them. They are all restaurants with a pleasant ambience, efficient service, reasonable prices, and consistently good food. There’s La Posadita, Firenze, Hecho en Mexico, the Restaurant and, the chosen old reliable this time, La Parada.
What swayed us towards La Parada? It was the cuisine. Peruvian cuisine. Because we’re absolutely sure there’s no Peruvian cuisine in Crystal Beach, Ontario where our friends Jack and Aleta hail from.
Auguste Escoffier, perhaps the most celebrated and respected chef and culinary writer in history called Peruvian cuisine the third most important in the world, ranking it only behind French and Chinese. At the Fourth International Summit of Gastronomy held in Madrid in 2006 and regarded as the world’s most important gastronomic forum, Lima was declared the “Gastronomic Capital of the Americas”. After their visit to La Parada, I think Jack and Aleta Baldwin might understand why.
La Parada’s chef and co-owner Alexandra Gutt is a native of Lima and a graduate of that city’s Cordon Bleu school. One night (I think it was New Year’s Eve) Ale was out on the town in Lima and briefly met a guy from San Miguel de Allende called Juanito Leon de Vivero.
One year later Ale was living in San Miguel de Allende. A year or so after that, Ale was engaged to Juanito. A year or so after that, Ale was married to Juanito. Five years ago, they opened La Parada together on Calle Recreo.
As celebrated as Peruvian cuisine is, if you asked me to name one Peruvian dish, there’s only one that I could name confidently and that would be ceviche. I vaguely remember from a book by Gaston Acurio (if you think the U.S. has celebrity chefs, you should see how the country goes gaga over this guy) that there’s even a national holiday for cebiche (I’m now switching to spelling it like the Peruvians with a “b” but still pronouncing it like a “v”). A basic Peruvian cebiche usually consists of raw fish marinated quickly in lime juice with onions, a little chili, salt and pepper. That’s just the start of the cebiches at La Parada. On the menu there are four cebiches, three tiraditos (a slight variation on cebiche), two cold octopus dishes, and one dish called Cavalleria, which consists of three tastes of tiger’s milk and one of chile-infused pisco, Peru’s national liquor. If you don’t know what tiger’s milk is, it’s the leftover marinade at the bottom of the bowl that is traditionally consumed by bold gastronomes. And yes, of course I drink it.
I mentioned that we were at La Parada for lunch and there’s a very good reason to go for lunch. Before 5:00 pm, La Parada offers the opportunity to sample mini tasting portions of most of the dishes that the restaurant calls Los Fresquitos. And that saves a lot of humming and hawing trying to choose just one.
My recommendation: Choose four and then share them with someone you love (or someone you don’t love). And which to choose? These are my favorites:
I think Ceviche La Parada is, plain and simple, the best ceviche in San Miguel. Purists may object to the sweetness and fruitiness that comes from bathing sea bass in mango and coconut but it adds a complexity that comes from no other ceviche I’ve tasted.
Purists will, however, like Ceviche Levanta Muertos. In my mind, there are two things that separate good cebiche from not so good cebiche. In good cebiche, you still have a definite taste of the fish. And in good cebiche, everything isn’t lost is a sea of vinegar. This was good cebiche, a more traditional and acidic ceviche with shrimp and octopus that may, as its name suggests, raise the dead.
With its addition of sweet potato and corn, Tiradito Buena Vida seems the most Peruvian. The fish, this time are sea bass and yellowfin tuna.
The fourth on my list would actually rank second among La Parada’s starters. Pulpo Al Olivo steers away from vinegar and puts octopus in a wonderful olive mayonnaise decorated with avocado cubes.
One of the nice things about ceviches is they’re not very filling, especially with La Parada’s sampler sizes. I have a tendency to always order the same main at La Parada. That’s simply because the Higaditos Asaltados is the best thing anybody does to chicken livers in this town. I did it again this week; then before the waiter had a chance to get away, I changed my mind. I already knew what Ale Gutt can do to chicken livers; I wanted to see what she would do to the pork belly special of the day.
I wasn’t disappointed. Perfect pork belly must be both crispy and melt-in-your-mouth, two traits that are difficult to attain together. This was perfect pork belly served on a bed of puréed sweet potatoes and topped with a parsley and mint chimichurri sauce.
Jack’s choice was the chicken salad sandwich. The breast comes on a baguette (I’m guessing from the bakery Cumpanio) sided with chile mayo and another La Parada classic, their battered fries.
Potatoes were probably born in Peru and today, there are 3800 different varieties in the country. A game of “One Potato, Two Potato” apparently lasts about a week and a half. In a fruit and veg store in Lima, it wouldn’t be unusual to see a dozen different varieties being offered, differing in size, color, skin, shape and, of course, taste. And remember I told you there was a special day for cebiche in Peru; yes there’s a National Potato Day as well.
Jack summed up his delight with the fries that accompanied what the restaurant calls El Quiquiriquí with one word. “Delicious”.
Aleta chose the beef strips with sautéed onions and tomatoes and, again, those La Parada style fries. “The sirloin’s a little chewy” said Aleta as we regretted not attempting to persuade her away from Mexican beef.
Don Day’s Wife’s choice was pork. Fall-apart back ribs were bathed in an Asian sauce and served atop mashed potatoes with lots of garlic. Yes, more potatoes. More starch than in a Chinese laundry. But oh such tasty starch.
La Parada takes its name from the Spanish word for bus stop and the theme is carried throughout the room. A small, humble home has been converted into a space that combines classic rusticism with contemporary pizazz. There’s a charmingly handwritten sign on double glass doors that opens into an anteroom dominated by a dramatically lit tapestry.
As you turn into the main area you’re overlooked by the bright lights from what must be a cramped kitchen. A mirrored backdrop behind the kitchen pays homage to the national drink of Peru, the pisco sour, and we insisted Jack have the traditional one that combines pisco (Don Day would say it has similarities to tequila but knows that Peruvians would argue), lime, egg white and sugar syrup. La Parada also offers orange; ginger and pineapple; mango and lemongrass; tamarind and chili; lavender; grape; and eucalyptus and mandarin flavored pisco sours.
The bar and the shelves behind it reinforce the bus stop theme with the clever and creative mounting of bus transfers from the Lima transit system.
You next pass through an area of comfortable seating to the main dining area situated in the home’s original courtyard. A crumbling stone wall, close to 20 feet high, is the perfect backdrop for the turquoise touches on areas like the servers’ t-shirts. Don Day’s Wife likes romantic restaurants and with its subtle browns and greys painted with moody uplighting, La Parada is a very romantic restaurant.
Now if Don Day’s Wife and I were having a romantic lunch alone, we would have probably skipped dessert but, as Jack said, “we’re on our holidays” which is all the convincing we needed. We ordered two to share between the four of us, a not to be neglected lime pie and a not to be missed dish that the waiter simply calls caramel ice cream but I would call one of San Miguel’s very best desserts.
The ice cream would be good on its own but it’s what’s also on the plate that makes it so special. Sugared chunks of walnut add crunch and bruléed bananas add crisp and creaminess.
We had been to a few very good restaurants during Jack and Aleta’s week in San Miguel de Allende. I asked Jack how he would sum up our lunch at La Parada.
He said, “Simply delightful, a yummy chicken sandwich, a great new cocktail and the best dessert ever in a romantic atmosphere”.
La Parada is open from Noon to 10:00 pm, Wednesday to Saturday, Noon to 9:00 pm, Sunday and Monday. The restaurant is located at Recreo 94 in Colonia Centro, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Reservations are almost essential and can be made by telephone at 415 152 0473.