Luck of The Llama
Brooklyn diners embrace Chef Erik Ramirez and his Peruvian cuisine.
The time for modern Peruvian has come—at least according to Chef Erik Ramirez and the host of diners who have flocked to his recently opened Llama Inn in Brooklyn, New York.
Somewhere in the back of his mind Chef Ramirez always knew he wanted to explore his roots in greater detail. But first he built his restaurant résumé: Clocking time at the former Nuela, the Nuevo Latino restaurant run by Douglas Rodriguez protégé Adam Schop, then at pan-Peruvian restaurant Raymi, and finally making a solid run as sous chef at Eleven Madison Park.
And then it was his time: Ramirez took the plunge just nine months ago and opened Llama Inn. He hasn’t slowed down since.
In fact, it seems Ramirez is constantly speeding up—adding brunch, then a lunch of Peruvian-style sanguche (sandwiches) and subtropical fruit smoothies, and this summer opening the rooftop for a separate raw bar and lounge. All the while, he continues to carve out a niche as the place for diners to keep going back to in Brooklyn’s super trendy Williamsburg neighborhood, where the restaurant landscape is dynamic and intensely competitive.
“With so much competition, it’s important to stay fresh and create different experiences in different parts of the space,” says Ramirez, of his decision to build several tangential service models. “Dinner is more of a creative expression for the chef, but brunch, lunch, and the rooftop keep people excited and coming back for different things.”
A first-generation Peruvian-American and a native of New Jersey, Chef Ramirez sees nothing foreign about Peruvian food or ceviche, although both have become something of a trend across the country. But there is something new about the 60-seat Llama Inn, which has been described by Chef Ramirez and others as Brooklyn’s answer to Peruvian. Inspiration for the restaurant’s name came from the 1957 Life magazine photo showing a llama with its head sticking out of the window of a New York taxi.
The restaurant’s early success is likely due to Ramirez’s fine-dining training, his perfectionism, and an uber-creative approach to menu development. At Llama Inn, he’s sought to put his own spin on classic Peruvian dishes like roast chicken, skewers, and lomo saltado, a stir-fried beef dish that was influenced by Chinese immigrants and includes onion, tomatoes, aji amarillo peppers, and even french fries.
“People relate to Chinese and Japanese food more than other [global] cuisines and those flavors are also common in Peru, so the Peruvian cuisine has become more approachable and understandable for New Yorkers and others around the country,” he says.
For his lomo, Chef Ramirez starts in the same classic way: with beef cooked in soy and vinegar and scattered with french fries. But he presents the dish with delicate, Chinese-style pancakes that are spiked with scallions and that are used to wrap the meat, along with spicy Peruvian rocoto pepper sauce, pickled chilies, and avocado.
For those street food skewers, or anticuchos, he marinates beef hearts, pork belly, and head-on shrimp in herbs, chilies, and—in the case of a chicken thigh—fermented soybean. Then he grills them over a wood-fueled fire before serving them tableside on a thick wooden board.
Instead of focusing solely on ceviche, Chef Ramirez plays around with Peruvian tiradito, thin-sliced, marinated fish that comes in the form of raw red snapper, and is served with creamy persimmon fruit, ginger, and poppy seeds—all layered prettily on a plate, along with a spoon for catching every drop of the tasty sauce.
In a nod to Peru’s arroz con pato, Ramirez swaps straight duck for homemade duck sausage, simmered in beer and almost hidden under a mound of spinach, then dressed with lime and olive oil.
To begin the meal, he offers a simple yet refined dish of raw and roasted beets paired with goat cheese, gooseberries, and crunchy roasted cancha, which are big Peruvian corn kernels. For a sweet and savory starter, quinoa, a common ingredient in Peru, is caramelized with bananas and spiked with bacon, toasted cashews, and avocado.
“People have some idea of Peruvian food, but the comments I’m getting are, ‘I never knew Peruvian food could be like this,’” Chef Ramirez says. “It’s so gratifying to hear people say that. We’re constantly trying to stay relevant and fresh and new.”
At lunch, the Peruvian sandwiches include creations like charred aji panca, and vinegar-marinated squid with scallions and aji amarillo mayo.
There is also crispy pork shoulder, with sweet potato and red onion salsa, and fried chicken thigh with fermented soy bean, aji verde and salsa criolla (pickled beets and onions with chilies).
The restaurant’s popular short rib stir fry combines Fontina, fried egg, and rocoto crème—all housed in a crispy-chewy roll.
To wash it down, Chef Ramirez serves smoothies made with lúcuma, quinoa, and almonds, or one with custardy cherimoya and yogurt.
Brunch at Llama Inn sees a spin on different egg dishes, including an omelet stuffed with Chinese sausage–fried rice. Seafood is also a leading protein, and, during the summer, the rooftop bar menu included oysters, clams, mussels, crab legs, wings, and some salted fish croquettes.
It has helped that key Peruvian ingredients have become more available, with foods like aji amarillo chilis, fruity aji panca, and hot, colorful aji limo, along with fruit like lúcuma and cherimoya more readily accessible.
Chef Ramirez even works with a local Brooklyn coffee roaster to source green Peruvian coffee beans that are roasted to spec and used in cooking and in beverage service.
“I’ve been trying to build more relationships with farmers who can grow these things or with others to bring them in,” he says. “But we’re kind of limited on the range of ingredients we can use to create those Peruvian flavors. That’s one challenge I constantly face. If I just want to offer a simple salad, how do I still connect it to Peru?”
Given that he’s already changed 40 percent of the menu within the first year of opening and that he draws inspiration from seasonal finds, his innovation and creativity clearly have not been tapped out just yet.
“I’m always tasting everything and trying to find a better way to make it or a more creative way to do things,” he says.
Ramirez’s other challenge is recruiting staff from the area. Few people want to take that hour train ride from Queens or the Bronx to commute to work.
Oh, and then there’s raising a toddler at home and finding time to sleep, all the while running the restaurant. “I’m just looking forward to the day when we can finally settle down a little,” he says.
That time might come, but Ramirez will likely find ways to shake things up again—after all, the llama is a symbol of endurance.