Hidden Gem Alert: El Tule (Lambertville, NJ)
Though postage stamp-sized, Lambertville is one of those tiny towns teeming with curious little shops, narrow alleyways, and a surprising number of eateries. It is separated from its sister city New Hope by the Delaware River and, when coupled together, the quaint duo makes for a fun day trip.
When it comes to Lambertville and New Hope, I’m no stranger to “stumble travel”–that means no GPS, no itinerary, no concrete plans–I literally stumble upon interesting spots and almost always discover a gem. I “discovered” El Tule, a Mexican and Peruvian restaurant, much like I happened upon neighboring Mediterranean hotspot Marhaba and it did not disappoint. Peruvian cuisine, for most, is still shrouded in a bit of mystery though Philadelphia diners have gotten a wonderful primer from celebrity chef José Garces with his ode to Peruvian and Cantonese fusion Chifa.
Peruvian cuisine largely reflects local cooking methods and ingredients—including influences from indigenous peoples and cuisines brought in with Spanish, Chinese, Italian, West African, and Japanese immigrants. Far from their native homelands and without familiar ingredients, immigrants modified their traditional cuisines by using ingredients available in Peru. Corn, potatoes, and chili peppers represent the holy trinity of Peruvian staples and frequently appear in many traditional dishes. The Spanish initially introduced rice, wheat, and meats (specifically beef, pork, and chicken) to Peru. Many traditional staples like quinoa, kaniwa, some varieties of chili peppers, and a host of roots and tubers have increased in popularity in recent years and revived interest in the South American cuisine.
El Tule’s menu presents two distinctly different cuisines and most will recognize comforting staples like fajitas, carne asada, and enchiladas from the Mexican offerings, but delving into the Peruvian dishes is where the real excitement lies. Ceviche Chifa, named for the hybrid fusion of Peruvian and Cantonese cuisines, is an exquisite jumble of corvina fish, pickled vegetables, and wontons dressed with a black sesame leche de tigre, or tiger’s milk–the seasoned marinade used to cure ceviche. On cold, blustery days (like the ones we’re experiencing here on the East Coast), a bowl of Incan quinoa and vegetable soup and a mug of spiced Peruvian hot chocolate is just what the médico ordered. A variety of tapas and heartier traditional plates round out the menu and serve as a thorough introduction.