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Salchipapas at Anticucheria Irma Guarria Numero Uno, one of the many food stands at Parque de la Reserva.

Image: Alice Levitt

With a population of almost 10 million people, nearly a third of Peru's 31.77 million are packed into Lima. Though full of history, it's not a pretty city, filled with urban sprawl that favors function over form. But that's just the architecture. There's a reason that two of the top 10 of the World's 50 Best Restaurants are crammed into Lima. It turns out, South America's second-largest city saves most of its beauty for the plate. Here are some of the best ways to partake in the diverse gustatory aesthetics of Lima.

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A rhapsody of roots at Central.

Image: Alice Levitt

No. 5  in the World: Central

Mashwa. Arracacha. Copoazu. No matter how sophisticated your palate, there's not much that will ring a bell on the 17-course menu at Central. That's because chef Virgilio Martinez is the first to serve most of the items in a restaurant. He and sister Malena, of the Mater Iniciativa research project, source foods from around rural Peru, and group them together by elevation in poetic dishes with names like Land of Corn to conjure the locales they represent. Ingredients include questionably edible but delicious prizes like chaco clay and balls of blue-green algae that appear in the Lower Andes desert. An open mind and palate are all a diner needs to soak in an experience that will acquaint them with Peru like none other.

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Cebiches form the backbone of the Nikkei cuisine served at Maido.

Image: Alice Levitt

Nikkei: Maido

Like the United States, much of Peru's best food is shaped by immigrants. And fine dining in Lima wouldn't be the same without its Nikkei influence. Japanese immigrants flooded Peru beginning in 1889 and many became farmers. This is important because the cuisine generated by these early settlers is a seamless fusion of Japanese technique and Peruvian ingredients. There's no better place to sample it than Maido, No. 8 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list. Luminescent ceviches and guinea pig confit occupy space on the tasting alongside miso-marinated cod and creamy chiclayo rice topped with Atico uni.

Incidentally, Nikkei cuisine is coming to Houston soon: Andes Café chef David Guerrero was staging at Maido when we visited, in preparation to open Nuna Nikkei Bar at Bravery Chef Hall this summer.

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Dumplings filled with chunks of chicken and spicy broth at Madam Tusan.

Image: Alice Levitt

Chifa: Madam Tusan

Japanese immigrants aren't the only Asians who have made Peruvian food more delicious. Just as American Chinese food is colored by settlers from Guangdong in the country's southeast, so is Peru's very different Chifa cuisine. While Americanized Chinese food is reliant on fried fast food, Chifa is as light and colorful as Peruvian cuisine. Thanks to superstar chef-owner Gastón Acurio (best known for Astrid y Gastón, No. 33 on the top 50 list) Madam Tusan is a step up from many other Chifa spots. Everything from hoisin sauce spiced with local chiles to tamale-style wraps filled with chicken-and-mushroom-speckled quinoa is uniquely Peruvian and stunningly flavorful. Order from the dim sum menu to try as much as possible.

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Cheese-filled sweet plantains, wild board empanadas and cebiche are just a few of the dishes in the tasting at ámaZ.

Image: Alice Levitt

Amazonian: ámaZ

Wild boar empanadas? Chifa classic lomo saltado made with fried plantains instead of fried potatoes? Banana-leaf-wrapped fish known as paiche? Welcome to the Amazon. Or rather the Amazon, but better. Sit in a woven seat that feels like a basket and get ready to be gathered up on a river trek. Order the tasting for four people and plan to suffer from a most glorious case of the meat sweats, or order the cecina y tacacho, smoked pork with fried plantain balls, and do it à la carte.

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Pizza completist? You won't find this one anywhere else.

Image: Alice Levitt

Comfort Food: Barranco Beer Company

You'll love the spiced skin of the pollo a la brasa (rotisserie chicken) and tender anticuchos (beef heart skewers) at prolific chain Pardos Chicken. Salchipapas (fries with hot dog slices) and picarones (squash and sweet potato doughnuts) at the stands at Parque de la Reserva are worthy of more than one visit. But for our money, there's no more intense or crave-worthy means to take in casual Peruvian fare than the Pizza Morada at this brew pub in the party-hard Barranco neighborhood. Served on a crispy purple corn crust, this pie combines the best of Peru with Amazonian tomato sauce and cilantro, chiles, green olives and smoke in the form of cured pork, sausages and smoked Serrano cheese.

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