We caught up with the chef on his upcoming projects—plus, where he eats Peruvian food himself.
The fast-casual Peruvian sandwich shop we never knew we needed—but now need desparately—will open in the West Village later this month. Chef Erik Ramirez, who helms the popular modern Peruvian restaurant Llama Inn in Williamsburg, has been futzing around with new concepts for months, including during his six-course Nikkei tasting menus, which he'll continue serving through the summer as he tests out Japanese-Peruvian dishes for yet another concept in the works.
But first things first: Llamita will open at 80 Carmine Street next month, serving “sanguche” (sandwiches), smoothies, and Peruvian coffee inspired by the shops you find in Lima. Sandwiches include a rib eye, with charred onion, gruyere cheese, lomo saltado sauce, and a calamari one, with aji panca, aji amarillo, charred scallion. There will be Peruvian roast chicken, too, and takeaway meals of causa (chicken salad, potato, aji amarillo, avocado, cancha) and pastel de Choclo (corn, beef picadillo, fontina cheese, lime). In the retail area, you'll find pickled chilies, adobo spices, housemade chips, cancha (toasted corn kernels) and more Peruvian products that are tricky to find in Manhattan.
"What's special about Peruvian cuisine is you have all these different facets—the cultural influences, the biodiversity," Ramirez tells Food & Wine. "You have the Chinese-Peruvian cuisine, the indigenous cuisine, the Japenese cuisine, the Andes, the ceviches from the coast. There's a lot going on, but not so much in New York. And that’s the goal for us—to hit some of those notes that make Peruvian cuisine special and expose more people to it."
One genre of Peruvian cuisine—the Japanese-inflected style called "Nikkei"—is particularly compelling to Ramirez, who has a Japanese-Peruvian grandmother. (His grandmother's father migrated to Peru from Japan, and his father's side is 100% Peruvian.) Every Tuesday since the beginning of April, the chef has been serving an excellent six-course Nikkei tasting menu at Llama Inn's eight-seat counter, testing out dishes like Wagyu chuck flap with matsuri rice tamal and "sushi" made with Peruvian whipped potatoes and charred octopus that he might serve at a forthcoming Nikkei restaurant. (The tasting menus are still bookable through the summer.)
Nikkei came to be as Japanese women migrated to Peru, as they "had to adapt to the ingredients available around them ... using the soy sauce that’s available in Peru and the rice that’s available in Peru, but still trying to cook the Japanese food they grew up eating." Ramirez's Nikkei food, though, will be a bit more experimental and "fusion"; he says his grandmother probably wouldn't recognize it.
"New Yorkers love Japanese food and they love Latin food," Ramirez said. "So I'm just pairing those two concepts together."
The chef says he is currently in negotiations with a place in the West Village to open Llama San, a Nikkei concept he hopes to launch within a year. Until that goes through, he'll continue experimenting with Nikkei at Llama Inn's chef counter and eating his way through North Jersey, which he says is one of the best areas for Peruvian cuisine.
"There's a very saturated Peruvian community around Clifton," he said. "The one that I grew up eating it as called Jailigos. Order the 'seco combined'; it's stewed meat and cilantro and beer and cumin served with rice beans and salsa criolla."