Move over, tacos. See you later, pasta. When it comes to international dining, Peruvian food is what's hot these days — especially in Maryland.
Earlier this year, the Huffington Post published a map of the United States showing which cuisine is most disproportionately represented in each state. It produced some obvious findings: In Texas, Tex-Mex restaurants dominate. Georgia loves Southern food. In Pennsylvania, it's cheese steaks.
But in Maryland, the most popular cuisine didn't have a thing to do with crabs or oysters or anything else pulled from the Chesapeake Bay. We are, apparently, all about Peruvian food.
This might not come as a huge surprise to close observers of local restaurant comings and goings. In recent years, Peruvian restaurants like Puerto 511 and Panka's Peruvian Cuisine have popped up throughout the city and suburbs, joining longtime favorites like Chicken Rico — which just opened a new location in the Inner Harbor — in a culinary expansion that has been well received, if not well publicized.
Maryland has 200 percent more Peruvian restaurants than the national average, according to the map. Peruvian is also the most disproportionately prevalent cuisine in Virginia, at 162 percent above the national average. The map's creators used data from the review site Yelp to break down each state's restaurants by cuisine, then they looked at the percentage each cuisine's restaurants captured by state and compared it to national averages.
Demographically, the local popularity of Peruvian cuisine makes sense. In 2010, Maryland ranked seventh in terms of Peruvian-American population; the state's 18,229 Peruvian residents make up 0.3 percent of the state population and about 3 percent of the total number of Peruvian-Americans.
Locally, Peruvian food is most often associated with heavily seasoned rotisserie-roasted chicken, but restaurateurs are quick to note that the cuisine is extremely diverse.
"There's a lot of variety," says Renato Lambruschini, the manager of Panka's Peruvian Cuisine in Cockeysville. "It's unique. You know how Italian food is pasta and Mexican food is tortillas and beans? In Peruvian food, there's nothing that specific."
Peruvian cuisine is influenced by the country's varied geography and its history of European, Asian and West African immigration. The menu at downtown's Puerto 511 reflects that diversity, including ceviche, several potato-based dishes called causa and a variety of sauces, many of which incorporate native Peruvian peppers. Quinoa, the trendy grain that is native to Peru, also shows up on the menu, as does purple corn, a deep-hued version of the vegetable.
"It's a lot of diversity in the food," says Jose Victorio Alarcon, a Peru native and the chef and owner of Puerto 511. "It's more than the chicken and the rice."
The local popularity of Peruvian food puts Maryland at the forefront of a national and international trend. The Culinary Institute of America dubbed 2014 the year of Peruvian cuisine and in a National Restaurant Association survey, 54 percent of American Culinary Federation chefs said Peruvian was a "hot trend" in 2015.
Alarcon believes the boost in Peru's local culinary profile relates to changes happening in the Peruvian food scene . "In 2006 or 2007, there was an explosion of food in the Peruvian economy," he says. "It's very exciting. A few years ago, Peru wasn't known."
The chef notes that prior to 2011, no Peruvian restaurants were included on "The World's 50 Best Restaurants" list, a well-respected compilation of restaurants sponsored by San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna. Today, the list includes four restaurants in Peru, including two in the top 20 (Central and Astrid y Gaston).
Apega, a group that promotes Peru's culinary culture, reports that the number of restaurants in Peru grew from 45,000 in 2005 to 100,000 in 2013. International tourism has increased as well, rising by 10 percent between 1997 and 2011 and projected to grow even more in the next few years.
The country is best known for landmarks like the Incan archaeological site Machu Picchu. But chefs like Gaston Acurio of Astrid y Gaston recognize that great culinary countries also make great tourist destinations. Acurio co-founded a cooking school in Lima, the capital of Peru, where he helps educate young chefs-to-be who dream of cooking both in Peru and abroad.
Alarcon has seen the impact of Peruvian tourism on diners here in Baltimore. After vacationing in Peru, people seek out Peruvian restaurants at home, he says. "They say, 'That cuisine is very good. I need to find a restaurant that's Peruvian!' And when they try the food, they say, 'This is something I remember from vacation. The real Peruvian cuisine.'"
But even Baltimoreans who aren't lucky enough to vacation in Peru and don't have roots in that country appreciate tjhe cuisine.
"People have started catching on," says Fernando Sanchez, whose family owns the popular Chicken Rico restaurants in Highlandtown and the Inner Harbor. "My folks opened the first one in Virginia 18 years ago. There's something everyone loves. People notice the quality. It's like a home-cooked meal that's very hearty and rich in flavor."
Since opening Puerto 511 in 2013, Alarcon has seen the local knowledge of Peruvian cuisine expand.
"I remember my first customer wondering, 'What is this?'" he says. "I'm very happy because I teach my customers the history, the technique, the ingredients. The people are very excited. My wife helps me, she explains not only the cuisine but the history and experience. She's teaching people and they're accepting Peruvian cuisine."
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Alarcon has no doubt that this trend will continue — both in Baltimore and throughout the world. "I think in maybe four or five more years, the best food in the world will be from the people from Peru," he says.