I’ve grown to love three sole menu places. And the best part is – they´re yummy and entertaining . . .
Because of past stomach problems, I was very picky about where and what I ate when I first arrived in Peru. I only frequented fancier, more expensive (between 5-10USD) gringo places, where they wash their vegetables with purified water. Then I realized I was missing an important piece of the genuine Peruvian experience. All local people eat from the numerous street vendors and three sole places (1USD). Sometimes the local ex-pats look at me funny when I tell them that I eat at the three sole places all the time. With some common sense and an adventurous outlook it’s completely safe, quite satisfying and even fun to frequent the “menu places.”
Remember that the local water and cleanliness standards are different than the tight restaurant codes of the Western world. Don’t go to these places if the sight of dirty walls, floors or light switches seem scary or offensive. It’s great to embrace local ways, but be a wary consumer. Local people are accustomed to bacteria in the unboiled water of their area, while you may not be. Make sure your food is always served on a dry plate. It’s not uncommon for food to be served on wet, but clean, plates. The problem for gringos is that a wet plate could contain potentially irritating bacteria. These bacteria die without the presence of water. Request a dry plate in a pleasant manner and most of the time the proprietor will be happy to oblige.
Menu places prepare one meal a day. There’s no choice to make, just walk in and you get whatever it is they’ve cooked. The first course of every menu place is a giant bowl of delicious broth-based soup that usually contains a lot of rice or pasta. I call it ‘parts is parts’ soup because most of the time there is at least one piece of something I pick out and save for the dogs – liver, gizzard, chicken foot or the occasional slice of intestine.
Normally there are two choices of meat for the next course, or segundo. The economical portions of the segundo keep the meal affordable. The meat portion is about half the size of a standard American portion, but after the giant bowl of soup, the smaller size is perfect. The meat always sits on a giant mound of rice and comes with a sauce or vegetables of some kind. Its safest to assume that raw vegetable garnishes or salads at a menu place have probably only been washed in unpurified water, so it’s best not to eat them.
Menus often come with extras, too. Desert often is a tiny bowl of warm pineapple or grape-flavored sauce, which I usually skip. Refrescos (kool-aid like drinks) and gelatins are also best avoided, because of the risk of being made from water that’s never been boiled. Sometimes sole menus come with a mug of pre-sweetened hot tea, which I always drink even though usually it’s more sugary than I would prefer.
The best part about a menu place is the atmosphere. Most of the time there are no other gringos around, which can be fun. Menu places are where I get my regular dose of Latin television. The Latin version of “Married With Children” is hilarious. And La Hija Del Mariachi is my favorite evening soap opera – it’s so engaging. Last week the mariachi and his friends got into a giant fistfight with some frat guys. (Of course the mariachis won!)