Cuzco’s popular Plateros Street, which opens off the Plaza de Armas, the main square, had several new restaurants open this season. One of them, La Merienda (Plateros 335), is a bit of a hidden surprise. While the others have windows on the street through which you can see the restaurant and get a sense of its ambiance and offerings, from the street La Merienda is a sign over a doorway that opens on a long hall. But once down the hall, an attractive space appears whose food is worth the mystery.
Not high design or haute Peruvian cuisine, La Merienda whose name suggests an afternoon repast, serves standard creole dishes as well as pizzas and pastas that are well and thoughtfully prepared.
When asked what the restaurant’s specialty is, the tall angular man with inviting eyes who waits tables, and sometimes entices clients from the doorway, simply and straightforwardly said “beef”.
Indeed the meat that went into a lomo saltado was succulent and tender with a deep, rich flavor. The restaurant also offers various combinations of lomo — tenderloin — such as the classic lomo montado — mounted loin, or a pan-fried steak with a fried egg on top.
But the chicharrón de pollo, breaded and deep fried pieces of chicken breast, was equally tender and moist. Its breading did not overpower the meat, but had a similar delicacy that did seemed almost to not have been fried; so little oil had entered it.
The pizzas are an evening specialty, when they fire up the small, brick oven in the back corner of the restaurant with wood. Once the wood has burned to coals and the oven is heated, well conceived dough that is stretched into a round receives a coating of ingredients and enters the womb to blister, bubble, and brown.
Plateros could well be the street of pizzas; so many of its restaurants offer them. But unlike the heyday some twenty years ago, the pizzas are now muted on the menu by many other dishes. The quality is much improved from its beginnings, but still there is variety.
La Merienda’s pizzas are good. Not only do they offer savory pizzas with a range of toppings, they also offer a fruit pizza, whether for desert or as part of a meal. The tropical, had banana, apple, mango, and pineapple, united by a sauce of sweetened condensed milk and ground cinnamon.
At lunch the restaurant also makes an offering of fixed price meals — menus. When we went it included an appetizer of yuca rebosada — battered, deep-fried yuca (the tuber of the sweet manic plant) with a yellow aji sauce, a soup, and a main dish. We chose the spaghetti a la bolognese. All the courses were tasty and well prepared. Most importantly the pasta was not overcooked and the bolognese sauce was full flavored and substantial, although the restaurant should probably pull the bay leaves from the sauce before serving.
The same can be said for the lasagna bolognese. Among the layers of cheese, pasta, and meat sauce, were bay leaves, as if the restaurant were saying “see we make this fresh and use real herbs.” But pulling them out is too much. That should be done before the dish is assembled in the kitchen.
La Merienda also claims a bar that looks well stocked, though we did not try its offerings. Instead we had a passion fruit juice that in many restaurants on Plateros tastes like it may have come from a package. In this case it had the tartness and freshness of the real fruit.
Owned by a couple that has another restaurant in Cuzco, outside the tourist circuit, La Merienda is a place that brings experience and skill. Though it may be said to lake the sizzle and pizazz of up-scale locations, it is much, much better than most of the restaurants on Plateros.
Most of all, though, besides its well presented and well-prepared food, La Merienda is comfortable. With its earth tones and cushioned benches against the walls, as well as friendly staff, this is a place where you might come for lunch and linger, over a glass of wine or a pisco sour while time just fades into the background.