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Peru is often hailed as a food lover’s delight, and as with any destination, it pays to have a local foodie friend to help navigate the way. In the case of The Lima Gourmet Company, you get two friends: Lucas Montes de Oca and Samantha Lewis, a husband-and-wife team.
“This may sound slightly funny coming from a tour operator, but Lucas and I generally hate organized tours,” said Lewis, who was raised in Kansas. “When we travel to a new city, we always look for friends or an acquaintance who can show us their special places and hidden gems. That’s precisely why the idea behind our tours is to make clients feel like they are out for a day with friends from the city — and not just passersby.”
During the daytime tours, the cheery and passionate couple takes groups ranging from two to 10 people to five venues over five hours at $125 per person. At night, the groups visit four spots over five hours at $135 per person. Clients visit a wide range of venues and districts.
One is Barranco, Lima’s most upscale neighborhood, which offers a diverse sampling of flavors and national goodies that range from organic Peruvian craft coffee at roasters-cafe Cafe Bisetti to creative twists on national dishes. Another option is a one-hour class on making ceviche (or “cebiche,” as it is better known in Lima) and pisco sours, available for $40.
The first stop during my tour was at Lima’s San Isidro Market after a personal pick-up from the JW Marriott Hotel Lima in the Miraflores district.
“Have you ever seen this fruit before?” Montes de Oca asked, holding up a giant green pod.
Chock full of regional produce, fresh seafood and some earthy market stall dishes, San Isidro Market is a fantastic introduction to Peru’s bounty. Montes de Oca proceeded to explain that the fruit was a “Pacay pod,” and its interior houses dark brown seeds enveloped with white, delicately sweet and cotton candy-like flesh. We also sampled and saw gherkin-shaped, seedless “cuke” avocados; “granadillas,” which are similar to passion fruit; and many colorful examples of the 3,000-plus types of potatoes indigenous to Peru.
The couple first met while they both lived and worked in Madrid for a major international branding company during the 2000s. In 2010, searching for new opportunities and drawn in by Peru’s emerging markets, the pair relocated to Montes de Oca’s hometown of Lima.
They soon got in the habit of taking out-of-town friends and family, most of them stopped over in Lima en route to the Andes and Machu Picchu, to their favorite restaurants, bars and neighborhoods. Word got around within Lima’s expat community, and soon local embassies were calling upon their services to assist any visiting dignitaries.
“It became so natural that we decided to try our luck by turning these routes into a business,” Lewis said. Come 2012, they did just that.
Instantly likeable and good-humored, Lewis and Montes de Oca are impeccable when it comes to their taste and culinary selections. They’re also quite frank and don’t shy away from discussing Lima’s less glamorous elements, as well as restaurants that should be avoided. Tour stops are focused on distinctly Peruvian flavors and cuisine, and most venues are local gems still under the radar.
“Clients don’t come to us to try international cuisine,” Montes de Oca said. “They seek us out to live a local experience.”
To wit: The second stop during my day tour was at El Mercado, a bustling lunchtime spot where we took in a couple of plates of “tiradito,” a thinly-sliced, more delicate version of cebiche served with brightly flavored sauces and condiments. De Orca swears it is the best octopus dish in the world. I’m inclined to agree.
Another tour favorite was Sophie Bistro for tapas-style takes on classic Peruvian dishes, such as stewed baby goat with pureed loche squash and a high-end, craft pisco and Peruvian beer selection.
We also swung by local and expat favorite, Barranco’s La Bodega Verde, a leafy, partially outdoor cafe, for its lucuma fruit milkshake. The fruit actually grows on property, and its rich, butterscotch-like flavor is instantly addictive (lucuma reportedly boasts numerous health benefits to boot).
While Lima Gourmet Company’s core restaurants do rotate, the pair always ensures that clients — or friends as they prefer to think of them — leave with a memorable, delicious experience — and, hopefully, a minimal hangover.
“We learned that giving a pisco sour to a 60-plus-year-old Mormon lady who has not had a drop of alcohol in her life is not the smartest idea,” Lewis said with a grin. “In year one, we had three lovely, cheerful women that took our tour and decided that even though they don’t drink, they would try a pisco sour. One of them, after a small sip, loved it and proceeded to down the rest of the cocktail in a matter of seconds. Needless to say, the next hour was quite eventful as she accelerated from sober, to merry, to drunk — to hungover.”
JW Marriott Lima www.marriott.com
La Bodega Verde/labodegaverde
The Lima Gourmet Companywww.limagourmet.com