Restaurant Review: Not So Perfect at Pachapapa, CuscoMay 21, 2014
On paper Pachapapa has it all: a great location in historic and atmospheric San Blas; colourfully decorated indoor dining areas and shady outdoor seating; a huge wood oven for their signature dishes like roasted beef tenderloin and whole roasted guinea pigs; and friendly, attentive staff. No wonder visitors to Cusco flock to this place. But like any good recipe, it takes more than a bunch of quality ingredients to turn a recipe into a great meal and somehow, the ‘whole’ of my experience at Pachapapa turned out to be rather less than the sum of its parts.
However, it would be unfair to judge a restaurant of such unquestionable popularity on just one visit, and picky as I may be, there are some aspects of Pachapapa which are memorable, enchanting even, and given that reservations at Pachapapa – or a long wait – are de rigueur, I could just be missing something.
Location isn’t everything, but it helps…
Part of Pachapapa’s appeal is undoubtedly its location and setting, around the delightful cobbled courtyard of a traditional colonial building opposite San Blas Square and its lovely adobe church. The square is also home to the pleasant and low-pressure weekly Artisans of San Blas market every Saturday, this trinity of attractions making Saturday lunchtime the perfect time to venture up to this quaint quarter for a bit of religious sightseeing, a spot of shopping followed by a nice drop of lunch.
I was indeed advised that lunch was the best time to visit Pachapapa. You can enjoy sitting in the courtyard sheltering from Cusco’s intense sun under a huge canvas parasol. Yes, you can still enjoy the courtyard setting if you choose to visit for dinner rather than lunch, but at this altitude it is always cold at night, which could mean struggling to eat whilst swaddled in multiple layers and a duffle coat. And although the restaurant is well equipped with outdoor space heaters, I am not a big fan of trying to heat a space that is open to the Andean elements. It just makes no sense to me, financially or environmentally.
So, perhaps naively ignoring the advice to go for lunch, we booked a table for dinner, and for the reasons mentioned above we reserved table in one of the cosy, chimenea-heated rooms around the courtyard. Consequently we were disappointed to be shown to an outside table on arrival and had to wait for an indoor table to become available.
In the intervening wait we enjoyed the novelty of watching one of the smartly dressed staff breathing life into a stove with an ingenious kind of tubular bellows, sipped on G&Ts and browsed the extensive and mostly Peruvian menu. They also do pizzas and calzones from 23 Soles (£5 or US$8.25) if you are not feeling too adventurous.
We had been tempted by the offer of a glass of cava on the bar’s specials board, but at 20 Soles (£4.25 or US$7 a glass), as were the wines by the glass, they were significantly more expensive than many other good Cusco restaurants, and on a par with world-famous Gaston Acurio’s Chicha. At 20 Soles the G&T was also rather steep and double the price at Korma Sutra just across the plaza.
On the subject of drinks prices, I am always a little bit suspicious when the waiter has to scurry off to find out the price of something as common as a G&T. It’s a bit like shopping in a fruit and veg market where the stall holders make up the prices depending on the cut of your clothes. Which of course happens everywhere, but should not happen in a well-to-do and fairly heftily-priced restaurant.
Anyway, having been hugely apologetic about the indoor-outdoor mix-up with our reservation the Maitre d’ continued to make up lost ground when he refused to seat us at a table next to a large group booking. So it was rather unfortunate that the table we were eventually seated at turned out to be next to a group which included some very loud and quite possibly hyperactive children and parents that didn’t give a hoot about the havoc they were causing. Still, we can’t blame the restaurant for the behaviour of tourists’ out-of-control children, although I freely admit it may have had some bearing on our overall enjoyment. Restaurant owners should take note.
ENTERTAINMENT TIP: If looking for fun at night, or to watch sports during the day, or even a taste of home, visit the Wild Rover Hostel Cusco for great food, sports and beer! Entrance to their bar is free even for non-guests
A promising start to dinner
Once at table the service was excellent. A local musician on a traditional Andean harp struck up and things started to improve. Our English-speaking waiter even brought an ice bucket for our bottle of chilled Argentinian Torrontes (80 Soles, £17.25 or US$28.50) – a real treat – and it was filled correctly with a mix of water and ice, so that the wine actually stayed cold rather sitting rather redundantly atop a pile of ice that resolutely refused to melt.
Starters were excellent, and portion sizes were exactly as described by our knowledgeable waiter. The chicharron – deep fried pork belly – with fried corn kernels, sweet potato chips and salad was huge, and thankfully the size was not an attempt to make up for any compromise on quality. The meat was tasty and extremely tender. And the causa – a stack of mashed native potatoes with smoked Andean trout and avocado was equally tasty, beautifully presented, and not too big – which was just what we wanted and enabled us to share without being too full for our mains.
The Main Event
However, it turned out that the starters were more of tease than an introduction and both our main courses were a bit of a disappointment. The oven roasted trout with tomatoes and fennel was perfectly edible although I felt the tomato, fennel, and lots of black pepper masked rather than improved the taste of what was a really good, fresh trout. And the mashed potato was just too runny.
The aji de gallina – a traditional chicken dish with a creamy sauce made from yellow aji chillis was pleasant enough, although as my companion remarked “a bit bland, and certainly no better than what they serve on LAN”. Perhaps a little on the harsh side but the quizzical looks from a fellow diner on a nearby table who had ordered the same seemed to indicate that he concurred.
Don‘t get me wrong, if you were served such food at a back street picanteria or a family-run lunch joint, you’d be over the moon, but at 35 Soles (£7.50 or US$12.50) and 33 Soles (£7 or US$11.75) respectively for our mains we expected better. Even the roasted cuy, which looked impressive and was dutifully removed from a neighouring table for dismembering after the obligatory guinea-pig-on-a-plate photos is 70 Soles (£15 or US$25 ), which is 5 Soles more than you’d pay for crispy confit of cuy in the restaurant at the exquisite Inkaterra La Casona.
I want to love Pachapapa as much as the next person, if only for the sake of the excellent, friendly and mostly efficient staff, but there were just too many near misses for me to rave about it.
For sure, it is a lively and popular tourist choice in a lovely part of old Cusco with such an extensive menu that you’d be hard pushed not to find something to tempt you. But despite its great location and super staff, it doesn’t quite cut it as a fine dining establishment or even a place for a quiet romantic meal with your significant other -at least, not when I was there. Considering it is one of the more expensive restaurants in town, I think there are probably better places to eat away your holiday budget.
Would I go again? I might try it for lunch, but having said that, and at these prices, I’m not yet convinced.
Open daily from 11:30am to 11pm. There are officially two seatings for dinner – 7pm and 9pm – which may be adhered to in high season.
Address: 120 Plaza San Blas, Cusco
Telephone: +51 (0)84 241 318
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