TAMPA — What makes a really good Peruvian sandwich?
At Meanchi’s, a Peruvian-inspired food truck in Tampa, owner Josh Varon seems to have found the answer.
For him, it’s a combination of things. First, it’s about tradition — giving indigenous ingredients and recipes the attention they deserve. But it’s also about adopting a contemporary, fast-casual mindset: taking risks and thinking outside the box.
His bestselling Chicharron sandwich ($11) makes a pretty compelling argument for both. Instead of the traditional pork belly, Varon swaps in roasted, fried pork shoulder and pairs it with thick planks of fried sweet potatoes, a zingy salsa criolla made with red wine vinegar-pickled onions and aji amarillo peppers. It’s served on a fluffy white French roll (sourced from the nearby bakery at Greek restaurant Psomi) and features a striking combination of textures and flavors: Smoky hunks of pork get a nice zap from the bright, acidic onions and a crunchy, almost sugary finish from the sweet potatoes.
It’s a really good sandwich.
Varon, 29, is hoping that sandwich and others on his menu will help put fast-casual Peruvian on the map for Tampa diners. So far, it seems to be working.
In Peru, chicharron sandwiches are typically eaten for breakfast — something you’d pick up on your way to the office. Here, it’s the lunchtime crowds that start lining up for it outside Varon’s truck, which recently relocated to the parking lot outside Workspace, a co-working space in North Hyde Park.
Inside the truck, Varon swivels back and forth between the order window and the compact kitchen space, where he lays out the ingredients for a short list of sandwiches and a few other dishes. (There are also quinoa salads, stir-fries and rice bowls.)
The son of Peruvian immigrants, Varon was born and raised in South Tampa and spent his summers visiting extended family in Lima, Peru. It was during those trips that he fell in love with the country and its multifaceted cuisine rich with influence from countries all over the world.
“My love for Peru, it’s a love for Peruvian food,” Varon said. “It’s Chinese, it’s Japanese, it’s indigenous, it’s Spanish — it’s extremely diverse and that’s what I’ve always found so fascinating.”
The country has garnered plenty of accolades over the years for its culinary treasures, from the incredible bounty of indigenous ingredients (including 4,000 different varieties of potatoes) to the impressive roster of renowned fine-dining restaurants, which have attracted a jet-setting foodie crowd.
But in Tampa, there are just a few restaurants that specialize in the cuisine, and Varon saw an opportunity for growth.
At first, he wanted to focus on ceviche, but the concept of grab-and-go raw fish didn’t really lend itself to a food truck. Sandwiches, on the other hand, were mobile and fast-casual. It felt like the best possible canvas to showcase some of Peru’s culinary traditions while still attracting a wide audience.
Varon’s menu highlights some of the country’s most cherished ingredients, including the aji amarillo pepper, a bright and fruity member of the capsicum family packing a soft and subtle heat. And though the menu leans more contemporary than traditional, the inspiration comes from some of the country’s most beloved dishes.
The Carmencita ($11) — named after his mother, Carmen — is a play on Peruvian comfort food staple aji de gallina and features shredded chicken tossed in a thick and flavorful aji amarillo sauce paired with crunchy fried onions and cilantro. And lomo saltado, a Chinese Peruvian contribution, finds its way to a creative mashup called the Meanchi’s Way ($13). Traditionally, the dish features a medley of sirloin steak, onions and tomatoes wok-fried with soy sauce and french fries. Varon’s take trades in braised chuck tender for the sirloin and couples it with aji amarillo peppers, red onions, tomatoes and fries.
Then, there’s the Peruban ($11), Varon’s favorite, a Peruvian-inspired spin on the classic Tampa Cuban served on La Segunda Central Bakery bread. It’s made with fried sweet potatoes, sliced ham, braised and shredded pork shoulder and an aji amarillo aioli.
Varon doesn’t plan on staying with sandwiches forever. Eventually, he wants to bring fast-casual Peruvian food to diners on a much larger scale. (For now, he’s calling it “the Tijuana Flats of Florida for Peruvian food.”)
“My goal is to push Peruvian food forward and get more people educated about it,” he said. “Anything to get people to try Peruvian food, in general.”
At some point, Varon said, he’d like to venture into fine dining. But for now, he’s content bringing the flavors of Peru to Tampa diners from the confines of his truck, sandwich by sandwich.
If you go
Where: 1529 W North A St., Tampa. 813-665-5801. meanchis.com.
Hours: Lunch, early dinner, 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Friday
Prices: Sandwiches, $9 to $13; bowls, $12
Don’t skip: Meanchi’s Way, the Carmencita
Details: Credit cards and cash accepted. Some gluten-free options.