As a relative latecomer to the world of pop-ups and their aftermaths, I have recently seen the light and embraced—with a perhaps naive enthusiasm—the many creative pathways being blazed by young chefs. Less expensive than food trucks and not as tightly regulated, pop-ups allow them to connect with more seasoned entrepreneurs. A few lucky (or ambitious) ones transition to semipermanent residencies or, in the best of cases, find investors to back them up. Arnaldo Castillo, now the proud owner of a handsome new restaurant in hopping Poncey-Highland, is an excellent case in point.
Born in Peru, Castillo immigrated to the United States with his parents as a six-year-old. He never went to cooking school but embraced a classic restaurant career, moving from kitchen to kitchen. Castillo credits former boss Hector Santiago, of the now closed tapas bar Pura Vida, for helping him prioritize local, seasonal ingredients and sincere cooking.
Becoming executive chef at Sean Brock’s Minero in Ponce City Market, a passionately Mexican restaurant that nixtamalizes its own tortillas, then leaving to launch La Chingana, an around-town successful Peruvian pop-up, showed how far Castillo was willing to go to become his true self. In partnership with Howard Hsu of Sweet Auburn Barbecue across the street, he’s now opened the splashy Tio Lucho’s, a contemporary Peruvian showcase named after his dad, also a chef—who, in a sad twist of fate, died two weeks before it opened. Tio Lucho’s fits right into a neighborhood that is exploding with gourmet options, including Fishmonger and a new location of Jinya Ramen Bar.
I have never been to Peru, but I have eaten in a number of Peruvian restaurants in our northern suburbs. Dishes such as ceviches with choclo (toasted, large-kernel Peruvian corn, reminiscent of corn nuts), papa a la huancaína (potatoes covered in spicy cheese sauce), and lomo saltado (stir-fried steak over french fries) introduced me to a multicultural cuisine influenced by Chinese and Japanese immigrants. At Tio Lucho’s, Castillo offers attractively cheffy but not foolish versions of the same dishes in frequently stunning presentations. For example, the velvety lomo saltado—perhaps the best-known Peruvian dish—has been tenderized Chinese-style with baking soda and egg whites and comes with rice as well as fries.
Raw fish marinated in citrus juices appears in many forms: ceviches (frequently red snapper from the Gulf) beautifully garnished with crisp local radishes and choclo; simpler and saucier tiraditos, made with tuna or grouper; and an especially intense and refreshing leche de tigre—historically leftover marinade, here a terrific creamy mixture with all sorts of seafood bites, seafood stock, ginger, garlic, and Peruvian aji and rocoto peppers, served in mason jars with crab hushpuppies on the side.
Castillo pays respect to the South wherever he can. His anticuchos de corazon, a street food usually consisting of grilled beef heart, is made with deliciously tender pork hearts from local pigs, interspersed with fried yuca. Causa, typically a cold layered dish of whipped Andean potatoes, avocado, and proteins, is mounded like an adorable little cake with, in one version, a distinctive layer of chicken salad bound with mayonnaise on top. There are Sea Island peas, sweet potatoes, and microherbs aplenty on many a plate with delightful accents of blood orange oil, trout roe, or distinctive corn varieties.
Pisco sours, served in short-stem glasses with a Peruvian flag drawn on their surface, are a big thing here. Several varieties of pisco, a high-proof grape-based Peruvian distillate, show up in other cocktails such as the fun, easy-to-drink chilcano, with lime and ginger ale. Whether eating under a slick wooden ceiling resembling waves or on a large patio surrounded by lush plantings, one can hang out and fantasize about traveling to one of Peru’s popular beaches. Other perks: attentive service, seasonal menu rotations, and dishes that can be enjoyed by vegetarians and vegans, including plentiful salads and a mushroom ceviche.
This article appears in our January 2023 issue.