On its corner of Santa Monica Blvd in West Los Angeles, Qusqo Bistro & Gallery exudes Peruvian vibrance with a colorfully patterned facade and loveably decorative llamas. It’s a cultural vibe that echoes across the restaurant’s design and its wholesome menu.
For over 10 years, owner Lucy Haro has cultivated Qusqo to live up to its meaning in the Quechua language of the Incas as the “belly of the world.” To serve as a center of nourishment, Qusqo offers healthy Latin food, including many vegan and gluten-free options. Having spent many years with family in Peru, Lucy was heavily inspired by the area now commonly spelled Cusco. “When you’re in that city, the energy is so good there,” she described. “It really does nourish your soul.”
Qusqo Bistro harnesses the nutrition of corn, potatoes, quinoa, and rice—staples that are at the heart of Peruvian cuisine. The reverence that the ancient Incas held toward such agricultural crops carries an implied sentiment that Lucy shares: “They really believed that they were awakening your soul with whatever you ate.”
A fitting introduction into the Peruvian food experience might begin with a glass of chicha, a purple corn juice customarily offered to welcome guests. Served in a long-stemmed glass, this organic wine-colored elixir is a non-alcoholic juice brewed in-house with apples, pineapples, and spices, giving it the tartness of fruit tea.
“Chicha is healthy because of all the antioxidants,” Lucy said. “It speeds up your metabolism and helps with circulation because of the cinnamon and cloves.”
During weekday and Saturday happy hours (5:30-7:30pm), you can pair your chicha or bar beverage with a selection of bites that offer more nutrition than typical bar food. Qusqo’s vegan happy hour menu includes five hearty plant-based dishes for $5 each: guacamole with plantain chips, cauliflower chicharrón, fried yucca, sauteed sweet plantains, and causa limeña (potato puree layered with vegetables).
Though these items are also on the regular menu, the happy hour specials are Lucy’s way of highlighting more veggies in response to shifting tastes. “Many customers who order from the vegan menu are not vegan, but are people looking to add more vegetables to their diets.”
The full dining menu is also organized to easily cater to different dietary preferences, grouping together sections for vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, and meat dishes. It’s a structure that reflects Qusqo’s regular customer base of health-conscious athletes, coaches, and fitness enthusiasts, many of whom Lucy came to know through her own practice in martial arts. They appreciate Peruvian food for being lean on fat and grease, but packed with energy and fierce on flavor.
“A lot of them eat my food because it’s very healthy and tasty. Every dish and every sauce has a lot of vegetables and herbs,” she said. “Our food is pretty filling, so they’re not feeling like they sacrifice.”
Throughout the menu, each dietary section shares several dishes in common. Ensalada Quinoa is a protein-packed quinoa salad with chopped vegetables that can include fish, steak or chicken. Likewise, the Tallarin Saltado (sauteed noodles) and the Arroz Chaufa (Peruvian fried rice) come in veggie and meat varieties. And of course, Qusqo offers Lomo Saltado, a traditional Peruvian stir-fry of steak and french fries served with rice. Variations are also available with vegetables, seafood, or chicken. The combination of carbs in these Saltado dishes offers nutrient-dense sustenance that’s particularly popular among Qusqo’s athletic patrons.
“Potatoes and rice aren’t bad for you,” Lucy noted. “It just depends on when you eat it and how much of it you eat.”
Several eye-catching small plate dishes may also pique your interest. Choclo con Queso is a vegetarian dish of jumbo-sized Peruvian corn kernels with cheese sauce. The Papa a la Huancaína is steamed potatoes covered with a cheese sauce made with queso fresco, garlic, and aji chilis. The Palta Rellena stuffs a mix of quinoa and colorful grilled vegetables into two halves of an avocado.
Perhaps most memorably, the Ceviche is a sizable serving of fish soaking in citrus juice in a tall, hefty margarita glass. The selection of fish rotates depending on which is the freshest. A plate below the glass is garnished with cancha, which are toasted corn kernels. These puffy wonders have been called unpopped popcorn, because when heated on a skillet, they pop when the kernels turn crunchy, but they don’t burst into white puffs. Qusqo gets such hard-to-find ingredients from a Peruvian distributor of specialty foods and sources produce from farmers markets in Santa Monica and West LA.
Having been born in East LA and raised in both Peru and Los Angeles, the food of both cultures has always been central to Lucy’s life. She remembers soup, salad, and vegetable dishes as mainstays on the family table, and she still prioritizes vegetables in her diet. “I’ve always wanted people to know Peruvian food and how healthy it is,” she said. “By having a restaurant, I created my own community, and I love seeing people connect here.”
Expanding upon its community vibe, Qusqo Bistro doubles as welcoming gallery space for art and events. Works of local art regularly rotate on display across the walls. Even the complex Quechua designs on the tables were handpainted by local artist Celeste Korthase. Lucy also actively hosts classes, workshops, lectures, performances, and silent movie screenings. Some events at Qusqo are Peruvian themed and some are not, but healthy living principles are what these groups have in common.
“We’ve been supported by the local community. That’s why we’re here,” Lucy said. “So, I feel like we’ve been a hidden gem this whole time.”