You may recognize Qusqo Bistro & Gallery as the Peruvian restaurant in West Los Angeles with the eye-catching facade, muraled with colorful patterns and adorned with lovable llamas on its corner of Santa Monica Blvd. Inside, cultural vibrance emanates from the complex Quechua designs hand-painted on the tables by local artist Celeste Korthase, as well as the variety of art displayed on the walls.
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,” positioned as a center of nourishment that offers healthy Latin food.
The bistro’s menu, including vegan and gluten-free options, reintroduces you to the nutrition of corn, potatoes, rice, and quinoa—foods that are at the heart of Peruvian cuisine. Lucy explained that the Incas revered agriculture more than gold. “They really believed that they were awakening your soul with whatever you ate.”
Having spent much of her time in Peru, Lucy ‘s restaurant imparts influences from the area now commonly spelled Cusco. “When you’re in that city, the energy is so good there.”
It’s a Peruvian custom to welcome guests with a glass of a purple corn juice known as chicha, so it’s fitting to start your dining experience at Qusqo with this beloved beverage. Served in a long stemmed glass, this organic wine-colored elixir is 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.”
For starters, quinoa is a protein-packed grain that’s regularly served in small plate dishes as a salad or stuffed into an avocado with grilled vegetables. Occasionally, quinoa will also replace the rice in Qusqo’s paella as a special entree. “Instead of arroz con pollo, it’s quinoa con pollo,” Lucy described.
Also among the small plate options, you’ll find steamed potatoes, fried yucca, and choclo (a jumbo-sized corn) accompanied with a specialty cheese sauce called huancaína, which is made with queso fresco, garlic, and chilis.
Peru is known for two particular dishes that you’ll, of course, find at Qusqo: ceviche and lomo saltado. The ceviche is a hearty portion of fish bathing in a pool of citrus juice served in a margarita glass. The selection of fish rotates depending on which is the freshest. The plate is garnished with toasted corn kernels called “cancha.” These puffy wonders have been called unpopped popcorn because when cooked on a skillet, they characteristically pop, but the insides don’t burst out.
The lomo saltado is a traditional combination of stir-fried steak and potatoes served with a side of rice. Other saltado options include chicken, vegetables, and seafood. The combination of carbs provides nutrient-dense sustenance that athletic patrons frequently seek from Qusqo’s menu.
“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.”
As a martial artist herself, Lucy also caters to the appetites of athletes and coaches from the professional fighting community. To them, Peruvian food is the food of champions. They enjoy it because it’s lean on fat and grease, but fierce on flavor.
“A lot of them eat my food because it’s very healthy and tasty. They’re not feeling like they sacrifice,” she said. “Our food is pretty filling. “
Among Qusqo’s other larger entree items, you can also choose from variations of fried rice and noodle dishes with chicken, shrimp, and vegetables. The parilla plate options include grilled chicken, steak, shrimp, fish or vegetables served with plantains, rice and beans.
“Every dish and every sauce has a lot of vegetables and herbs,” Lucy said.
Lucy was born in East LA and raised in both Peru and Los Angeles, with food of both cultures being central to her life. “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 hosts classes, workshops, lectures, performances, and silent movie screenings. Some events 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.”