Tabernas or taverns, are commonplace on the bustling city streets of Peru. The venues are casual eateries where people can eat and drink with a soundtrack of live music. Peruvian-born José Alkon wanted to recreate the experience in Sydney’s Marrickville and spearhead a dining experience that reflected the multicultural landscape of Peru. He opened the doors to Pepito’s (named after his father) in 2020, which showcases the regional diversity of Peru through the lens of taberna food.

Alkon speaks to Hospitality about why migration has played a significant role in Peruvian cuisine and how Pepito’s menu veers away from traditional bounds. José Alkon first moved to Australia from Lima in the late ’80s with his family, who are originally from Huánuco, Peru.

He says Peruvian cuisine has been shaped by the amalgamation of indigenous and global cultures. “There’s Spanish, African, Chinese and Japanese,” says Alkon. “They brought along their style of preparing food while taking the abundance of natural resources of Peru into account, using their skills and the new ingredients to create a sort of wild fusion.”

Alkon wanted to celebrate Peru’s history of migration through his Sydney restaurant
Pepito’s, which is based on a Peruvian taberna. “They are casual, family run venues
usually centuries old with a really loud, fun atmosphere where people go to hang
out,” says Alkon. “I was more interested in creating an authentic environment rather
than an authentic food experience.”

When venues open with a specific culinary direction, there is often an expectation
for restaurants to deliver a level of authenticity and familiarity, but Pepito’s is making new traditions. “You can’t be authentic if you don’t have the ingredients, so we say we are an interpretation,” says Alkon. “Just like [the people who] went to Peru to recreate their dishes using Peruvian ingredients, we are doing Peruvian food using Australian ingredients.”

Meat, fruit, vegetables and sustainable seafood are all locally sourced for dishes, but traditional Peruvian ingredients such as specific chillis are harder to come by
in Australia. Ají amarillo, ají panca and rocoto are integral to Peruvian cookery,
but can also be imported in paste form.

“We’re fortunate to have some growers [producing] Peruvian chillies, but not enough to sustain a restaurant for a whole year, so we rely on chilli pastes we bring in from Peru,” says Alkon.

The menu is divided into five sections: platos frios (cold dishes), sanguches (sandwiches), snacks, plato de fondo (main courses) and anticuchos (grilled meats). Diners are encouraged to order multiple dishes and share amongst the table. “Traditionally, Peruvian food is known for its large quantities,” says Alkon. “I wanted to do more of a tapas presentation where you can try five or six dishes in one sitting, rather than coming in and having one or two.”

A popular order is a home-cooking staple called causa de camarones, a lasagne or terrine-like dish with layers of mashed potato, prawn and avocado. In Peru, it is typically served in larger slices, but the Pepito’s version is more pared back. “We wanted to take the core ingredients and recreate it so people could enjoy it visually and for it to be restaurant quality,” says Alkon.

Another “rockstar” dish is a type of ceviche made with leche de tigre or tiger’s milk in Spanish. The name refers to the marinade made from lime, garlic, spices and chilli. “We wanted to celebrate the marinade, so it comes in a cup,” says Alkon. “It’s fish, cooked prawns and fried calamari on top, so you can imagine the balance of the lime, the crunchiness of the calamari and the chilli. We get people to drink the juice at the end because it’s the best bit.”

Pepito’s is all about an experience that veers “outside the traditional image of panpipes, salsa and reggaeton”, says Alkon. The concept has allowed the restaurateur to explore his own heritage and give diners an insight into a different side of Peruvian cooking.

“Pepito’s celebrates all the things I love about my country, which is the edgier, more local scene in Peru [rather] than a tourist’s perspective of it. It gives us the freedom to try different things with the food, so we don’t have to follow traditional protocols.”