Travel

The Vast, Incredible World of Peruvian Sandwiches

Plus, where to get the best ones in Lima.

January 11, 2019
Photo by Mark Weinberg

It’s late morning on a Sunday in Lima, the coastal capital of Peru. The sky is a dull gray color, which the locals call panza de burro—"donkey's belly"—typical of the city's skyline for all but maybe three months out of the year. Most residents of the “thrice-crowned city of kings,” as it was known in the colonial era, are filing out of one of its many, many Catholic churches. After all, the Church (always with a capital C) holds a legally privileged status in this country. Those who aren’t religious may just be waking up from a pisco-fueled, all-night jarana.

On these days, limeños—whether religious or secular—are united in a nearly singular hunger for one particular type of dish: sánguches. In Lima, sandwiches are closely associated with breakfast, not lunch. You can get a sandwich almost any time of day in the city, which makes them rather unique in the Lima food world. Food is on a very strict schedule here. Good luck trying to find good ceviche past lunchtime, for instance, and you may want to say a little prayer to El Señor de los Milagros if you want to savor anticuchos (grilled beef heart skewers) before sundown. But Lima’s many sangucherías are often some of the first food businesses to open, and many still serve their meaty, hand-held specialties well into the night.

Now, locals might not consider a sandwich substantial enough for the main meal of the day. If your abuela were to ask, for instance, if you'd eaten, and you said a sandwich, you could've just as well said a bag of chips. The Peruvian sandwich might feel a bit minimalist compared to a Mexican torta (and its regional cousins), with its many layers of brightly colored, intensely flavored fillings. But the sánguche reflects a distinctly limeño appreciation for a quiet, almost restrained elegance in food.

The focus of a sánguche is the quality of the meat and its often complex preparation—but the sandwiches themselves are simple. They require only a little bit of ají sauce and some gossamer strings of lime- and cilantro-marinated red onions (sarsa criolla) to cut the richness. (Perhaps we owe this intricate, balanced approach to our significant nikkei community, the Japanese immigrant population living in Peru, who may be responsible for upgrading Peruvian ceviche to what we know today.) Lima boasts several types of these deceptively simple sandwich fillings:

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Top Comment:
“Just wanted to add that in the north Andean and Amazonian regions of Perú, the chicharrón has almost the same connotation as in other countries in Central America and México: this fatty layer next to the skin. My mom is from Chota in Cajamarca, and I was born and raised in Moyobamba in San Martín, and for us the traditional definition of chicharrón was the fatty layer used to infuse grease into the tacacho (me) or into the tamales (my mom). Thanks for the good reading! :) ”
— E D.
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Roast turkey seasoned with ají amarillo chile, plenty of cumin, and a splash of soy sauce is a perennial favorite. Asado is also popular: fork-tender beef pot roast drizzled with its braising potion that carries almost chocolaty notes of ají panca chile and sweetness from carrots. Quechua-speaking indigenous migrants from the Andes brought their love of roast suckling pig—called lechón—to Lima. Now you can see street carts and humble sandwich counters throughout the historic center of the city displaying a roasted pig’s head watching over dainty sandwiches filled with its tender meat. Some more old-school limeños are devoted to relleno—a spicy, savory filling of fried chicken's blood. Others gravitate toward huachana: This filling is also spicy, made with a bright orange sausage that's the specialty of a town called Huacho, just north of Lima. It’s crumbled, fried, and mixed with scrambled eggs to form a sort of Peruvian sausage and egg McMuffin (there's just no English muffin).

Despite the variety of sandwich fillings available in Lima, the bread always remains the same: pan francés. These rolls are the de facto daily bread here. It's what strolling vendors announce to the neighborhood first thing in the morning, what mothers scurry out to buy hot from the oven, what you have with your café con leche, and a requirement for every single limeño sandwich. In fact, one could argue that without pan francés, the sandwich isn’t truly authentic. Although its name implies a French origin, pan francés might be closer in form to a Portuguese water roll, except that it has a noticeable slash in the middle. (My father used to tell me that pan francés is often used to describe a perfect posterior: a deep crease dividing two round, firm globes.) The rolls have crunchy crusts that provide structure to sánguches and soft, slightly chewy insides that can soak up the juices of whatever meaty filling a limeño fancies.

While limeños can fancy any of the fillings I described above, there is one particular filling that might be considered the reigning viceroy (because Peru was a viceroyalty of Spain): jamón del país. This translates to "country ham," but bears little resemblance to conventional deli meat, except for the pork. It's made by brining a butterflied pork loin or shoulder, spreading it with a mixture of ají chiles and spices, rolling it up, trussing it, and poaching it in a flavorful broth. It's then rubbed with a deep ochre-colored oil infused with annatto seeds to give the “ham” its characteristic orange exterior. Every bite reveals tiny bursts of flavor from the ribbons of seasoning spiraling through.

If boiled pork sounds unappealing, then I cannot stress enough how magical jamón del país is and how difficult it is to make correctly. There's a reason you can only get jamón del país from eateries that specialize in sandwiches: It's an art. I'm currently on my sixth attempt at creating my own recipe for it and still haven’t gotten it right. The brining and gentle poaching actually help the pork retain its juiciness, and the decades of experience that many of its cooks have means that they know exactly when it's at its optimal succulence.

While other sandwiches are called “pan con...” (“bread with...”), the combination of pan francés and jamón del país is so beloved in Lima that it has a specific name: butifarra. This name—like many other Peruvian food names—confuses people throughout the Spanish-speaking world, especially Spain, where a butifarra is a type of sausage. It's unclear why we Peruvians decided to repurpose the name of a sausage for our most popular sandwich, but like our use of the word palta for avocado, it's one of the things that makes our cuisine unique.


Where to Eat Everything

Cordano

Every sanguchería has its secret seasonings that gain it loyal fans. Perhaps one of the first places a visitor should sample a butifarra is at one of its oldest and most iconic purveyors, Cordano, which is located just catty-corner from the rear of the presidential palace in the colonial center of the city. It's been around for over 100 years, and during this time has been a popular hangout for politicians and political journalists. The focal point of the wood-paneled dining room is the glass-enclosed carving station that enshrines the jamón del país. The salt and seasonings in the ham allow the restaurant to keep it at room temperature and carve thin slices whenever a diner orders a butifarra. Refrigeration would actually dull the flavors of the pork and diminish its succulence. Similarly, heating it could damage its nuances. If you're really concerned about pathogens, then wash down your sánguche with one of the bar’s excellent pisco sours, Peru’s official cocktail. The potent drink is sure to kill off any bug (or at least get you buzzed enough to no longer care).

La Lucha

A more modern addition to the roster of sangucherías in Lima is La Lucha, which has a few locations throughout the city. La Lucha features a few innovations that have set it apart from other more traditional sandwich shops in the city, like the inclusion of smoked meats cooked in steel barrels and a selection of Amazonian fruit smoothies. The butifarras, however, are faithful to tradition, lest the owner upset denizens of Lima who hold this sandwich close to their hearts. The quality of the pork here is its greatest distinction, because it yields a jamón del país that's almost buttery without being greasy. The complete La Lucha experience includes a side of its famous French fries made with huayro potatoes, an heirloom variety whose daffodil flesh is interspersed with seams of purple. Dipped into one of the sanguchería's creamy sauces, the fries can almost make you forget about your sandwich.

Butifarras are enjoyed in the mornings, but many Limeños enjoy them for dinner or as hearty snacks in between meals. Miniature butifarras also feature on buffet tables at many social gatherings. They're essentially an anytime food. But if it's breakfast you're after, Lima does have a very good, very traditional one: the desayuno Lurín (or "special breakfast").**

There are two main components in a desayuno Lurín: a chicharrón sandwich and a tamal. Although the sandwich in this breakfast doesn’t get its own name like the butifarra, it rivals it in popularity. A pan con chicharrón consists of the requisite pan francés roll and slices of pork belly that's been slow-braised, then deep-fried in its own fat. As with the butifarra, the pan con chicharrón causes confusion among other Latin Americans. For many, "chicharrón" is pork rind, the outermost layer of pork belly that includes the skin. Peruvians, however, don't include the skin in their chicharrón and incorporate more of the meat that lies beneath the layer of belly fat. As a result, chicharrón in Peru is leaner, meatier, and less chewy than in other parts of the hemisphere.

The Peruvian sandwich might feel a bit minimalist compared to a Mexican *torta* (and its regional cousins), with its many layers of brightly colored, intensely flavored fillings. But the sánguche reflects a distinctly limeño appreciation for a quiet, almost restrained elegance in food.

Because this sandwich filling is so rich, it requires the extra starch of fried sweet potato slices along with the sarsa criolla and ají sauces. When ordered on its own, the sandwich comes pre-assembled. But as part of the desayuno Lurín, the components are neatly laid out on a plate for the diner to assemble. I like to make sure there's more pork in my sandwich than sweet potato, and I save any extra slices to dip into the spicy ají sauce (although every limeño has his or her perfect proportions).

What completes the desayuno Lurín is the red tamal. This particular type of tamal is attributed to Lima’s Afro-Peruvian community and is steamed in banana leaves. It's much larger than Mexican tamales and is made with ground mote, a type of processed corn akin to hominy. The corn dough is seasoned with ají chile, and the cook embeds pieces of spicy braised pork, a wedge of hard-boiled egg, a botija olive, and roasted peanuts. It's truly one of the more unique tamales in Latin America, and one of the most filling.

You can now see why this breakfast is reserved for Sundays, when most families in Lima rest.

El Chinito

You can often get an assembled pan con chicharrón at the same places that offer butifarras and other types of sánguches. But there are places that specialize in chicharrón, and these are the eateries that pull in limeños on Sundays like iron fillings to a magnet. One of the most popular places to get a desayuno Lurín on a Sunday in Lima is also a perfect representation of the city’s cosmopolitan food culture: El Chinito. The restaurant owner is Peruvian-Chinese, and what makes his chicharrón so appealing is that he uses Chinese seasonings like soy sauce, along with more traditional Peruvian ones, to give his fried pork extra flavor. El Chinito also features other Chinese influences throughout the menu, including char siu sandwiches. Everything else about this sanguchería is quintessentially limeño, down to the café pasado (filtered coffee) that the city’s residents sip with their desayuno Lurín. The caffeine helps to keep diners awake enough to make it safely back home (or to a park bench or movie theatre seat).

As late Sunday morning fades into early afternoon, the residents of Lima slowly trickle out of the city’s many sangucherías and finish the last hours of their weekend languidly. Memories of savory, meaty sandwiches are still fresh in their minds’ palates. The satisfying meal encourages them to slow down and enjoy the sensory pleasures that the city offers in spite of its grey, donkey-belly sky—the historic architecture, the parks and plazas, the dramatic cliffs abutting the Pacific Ocean, and the deliciously unique food.

Have you ever had a Peruvian sandwich? Let us know in the comments below.

17 Comments

KThomas April 1, 2019
Great Article. Just returned from Miraflores. I sometimes go to La Lucha and also Pan de la Chola. My wife is from Peru and we go as often as we can. I look forward to your recipes for Jamon del Pais and more importantly pan frances. We have been looking for a pan frances recipe for years. By the way, we also have a wood-fired outdoor oven that we like to use. Ay que rico!!
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. April 2, 2019
It looks like I need to visit Pan de la Chola next time I'm in Lima. You're the second person to comment about it. I do have a recipe for jamon del pais. You can email me at [email protected] if you'd like it. As for pan frances, I am working on a recipe for it. I had a trial run a few weeks ago, and the results were satisfactory, but I want to perfect it.
 
Riley M. January 20, 2019
My favorite sandwich in Lima was from Pan de la Chola in Miraflores. It’s a bakery and the bread was just fantastic!
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. January 21, 2019
I have heard good things about Pan de la Chola. It's a more modern take on a sangucheria. I will add it to my map for when I visit next (whenever airfares drop...)
 
Bethany T. January 15, 2019
I was in Peru this past fall and I fell in love with La Lucha Sangucheria and more specifically their lechon ala lena and the aji sauce. Any chance you can recommend a recipe for making them?
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. January 15, 2019
Hi Bethany! La Lucha is addicting! Lechon a la lena is made over a fire, so coming up with a recipe for it is tricky. I have been working on a recipe for jamon del pais, which is the most popular one. Finding the right kind of bread is tricky, though, so I will have to work on a recipe for pan frances, too. I'll see if I can publish a recipe soon. Keep a lookout for it!
 
Bethany T. January 20, 2019
Thanks! I'll keep an eye out for it!
 
Sandy January 14, 2019
Is there a recipe for the special mayo?
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. January 14, 2019
Hi Sandy. There sure is a recipe for the mayo! Check it out: https://food52.com/recipes/71816-triples-de-palta-peruvian-avocado-sandwich
 
Michael H. January 14, 2019
Oh for pitty's sake. It's a Dagwood.
 
Eric K. January 14, 2019
Hi Michael, did you read the entire piece?
 
PhillipBrandon January 12, 2019
Do they have chacareras in Peru? I've been combing my town in northern Chile for the best one. There's still a certain aversion to spiciness here, and I have to goad them in to loading up the ají on my sandwich.
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. January 13, 2019
No. Chacareras are uniquely Chilean. And I have always had the same opinion of Chilean food with regards to spiciness. They have ají but they don't use it as much as people use it in Peru. I do envy you for having access to all those chacareras. I hope you get to enjoy them, and if you get to Lima, try out some sánguches.
 
weshook January 12, 2019
Mmm...makes me wish for recipes for jamon del paid and the chicharron!
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. January 13, 2019
I'm working on it. I think one of the issues is that the pork in the US is so different form the pork in Peru. It is much leaner here, so it is difficult to get the right flavor. But I am working on it.
 
E D. January 12, 2019
Great article Carlos! I just got back from Perú, and already miss the sánguches. Just wanted to add that in the north Andean and Amazonian regions of Perú, the chicharrón has almost the same connotation as in other countries in Central America and México: this fatty layer next to the skin. My mom is from Chota in Cajamarca, and I was born and raised in Moyobamba in San Martín, and for us the traditional definition of chicharrón was the fatty layer used to infuse grease into the tacacho (me) or into the tamales (my mom).
Thanks for the good reading! :)
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. January 13, 2019
Thank you so much! You are absolutely right. I think this brings up a good point about how Limeños see Peru. We think the way we do things is reflective of what all Peruvians do...and you can see it in the restaurants in the US. What many people consider Peruvian food is actually limeño food. The minute you said San Martín I immediately remembered tacachos and how they have the fatty crunchy chicharron in them. But also I know that the chicharrón used in dishes like puka picante from Ayacucho is more like the chicharrón found in Lima. It would be interesting to investigate and see how different regions of Peru do chicharrón and if there are any cultural or historic reasons for the preparation. Thank you for bringing this up.