Chinese Food and Hubris in Cuzco

Overestimating one’s abilities is so common. In fact the ancient Greeks had a word for it, hubris. Nevertheless it is tragic when one finds a restaurant with charm and promise that yet falls into this trap. Such a place, unfortunately, is La China restaurant which promises fine Peruvian Chinese food and yet does not make the mark despite its evident charms.

Cuzco natives Maria Elisa Flores and Alberto Flores–the brother and sister team who conceived and run La China–received a splashy article in Cuzco’s society magazine, Cusco Social, on the restaurant’s opening. It promised that La China would provide the best Chinese food in Cuzco and that “all moments [will be] special there.” “La China has spared no detail,” the magazine trumpeted.

The restaurant is beautifully designed with its dragon on the wall and Chinese vases on a few family-style round tables. There is no doubt that its menu expands the standard list of Chinese offerings common to the city’s chifas (Chinese Peruvian restaurants), with its cocktails, its Bao–steamed and filled chinese breads, common in Dim Sum, as well as the companion siu bao, mushroom dumplings, or with the creative “wok-style lomo saltado” or the langostino nest.

Attention from the restaurant’s service personnel is also impeccable.

Inside la China
Inside la China

But one would expect such from a restaurant founded by a chef with the training and experience of Alberto Flores. Trained at Lima’s renowned Le Cordon Bleu, Flores then worked at restaurants such as the well-known Malabar restaurant in Lima. There chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, who studied at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, fuses Peruvian cuisine with Italian specialities that he learned while working in that country. Chef Flores also worked at the Nikita restaurant located in the trendy Asia beach area south of Lima also run by chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, where the specialty is the marriage of sea food with land based foods.

Chef Flores also worked at a restaurant called Don Ignacio in the US. While this could have been any of a number of Anglo-Mex establishments, it was probably the much trumpeted Peruvian restaurant and school in Miami Florida.

It is worth covering this background, because other than his general culinary training Chef Flores shows no background in Chinese cuisine or its Peruvian variant. Nevertheless his restaurant trumpets it will provide “the best”.

Soil and Chili Sauces
Soil and Chili Sauces

Unfortunately this lack shows in the food served at La China.

The food is beautifully prepared and presented. Indeed, following the general line of fine Latin American gastronomy the aesthetic plating of the food is a delight. Your eyes shine when it arrives with great expectation.

One also sees the care in ingredients, preparation, and cooking. It is indeed a pleasure to sit in such well decorated surroundings on the second floor of an old-colonial building between Cuzco’s municipal offices and the Santa Teresa church and then have such graciously prepared, presented, and served food appear before you.

Unfortunately, the times we have gone there, the delight disappeared with the appetizer. Called “min pao” in Peru, this version of the Chinese bao, or steamed, stuffed bread roll, tends to include meat and fermented bean paste. Generally it is characterized by the lightness of the moist bread and the balance between that and the well flavored filling.

Min Pao
Min Pao

In La China’s min pao, the bread seemed flat. It lacked the airiness common in this standard of dim sum. At the same time the filling was scant and poorly flavored.

We tried as well the kay pao, a similar product with chicken in the middle. Similarly under-raised, this bao just had a chunk of cooked chicken in the middle. It certainly did not have the delight of a good cha siu bao with its char siu pork or a well flavored chicken breast.

The sauces presented to accompany the bao were good. They included hoisin sauce, a tamarind sauce, soy sauce, and a candied limo pepper relish. However the hoisin seemed diluted, in contrast the soy sauce was too strong. It overwhelmed the delicacy of the bao (a lighter soy sauce–from the Chinese repertoire–was required). The tamarind had the standard sweet and sour flavor. The pepper relish was also good, but did not seem to combine well with the bao.

We also ordered another dim sum standard siu mai, a pork and mushroom dumpling. These were well presented and well done, even if their mushroomy flavor seemed weak. However, they were much better than the steamed breads.

Fried Rice
Fried Rice

The appetizers were followed by a beautiful wonton soup. Built around a rich broth that delighted with beautiful vegetables and large wontons the soup seemed amazing, even if the flavor was not exactly that of a true chinese soup, even the Peruvian version. However the delight ended when we bit into the wontons. They were a bit fermented, as if they were old and had rotted.

This latter is extremely troublesome, even if it only happened in one of the three times we went.   Not only is it potentially dangerous, it is a sign of lack of care in the kitchen that runs counter both to the chef’s training and a concern for the health of the restaurant’s clients.

The fried rice, arroz chaufa, was beautiful, with good flavor, good ingredients, and well prepared. Indeed it may have been the high point of the meals.

The chicken tipakay, a sweet and sour Peruvian classic, included at La China large strips of breaded and fried breast with vegetables in a red sweet and sour sauce along with oil and black sesame seeds.

The chicken was juicy and well prepared even if it was more pollo and less gallina, that is young commercial birds rather than the mature hen promised in the Peruvian name of “gallina”. Unfortunately the sauce lacked the pleasant zing and intensity of most tipakay sauces in Peru. It, like the hoisin, seemed watered down.

Chicken Tipakay
Chicken Tipakay

We would continue this review with a critique of many of the other dishes, but it is best to leave it here.

La China has lots of promise. It is a beautiful place. The service is outstanding. The chef has good credentials. The food is well presented and beautifully prepared. But it is not quite up to what it claims. Cordon Blue chefs can do good Chinese food, no doubt, and good Chinese Peruvian cuisine. But more training in the sspecific details of Chinese cooking and flavors would help, as would more attention to the details of flavor and quality.

Let’s hope Chef Flores and his sister take the challenge and work to make their restaurant what it should be. For the time being, if what attracts you are the pluses of La China–good decor, service, and well presented food, then you will enjoy La China.  But if you are looking for good Chinese or Peruvian Chinese food in Cuzco then this is not yet the place for you, though I hope it will become so.

Tallarín Saltado
Tallarín Saltado

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