Note: A write-up of any restaurant that has been open less than a month is considered a "First Impression." Meaning, we want to bring you the latest and greatest from around SF but acknowledge that new spots may have some kinks to work out. We keep that in mind, and you should, too.
Is Peruvian the new "it" food? Judging by the slew of articles written about it in the last year, the answer is a resounding si. From the New York Times to USA Today, from Gourmet to the Washington Post, it's getting a lot of buzz. Nuevo Latino cooking isn't new to San Francisco; we've been enjoying Fresca and Limon for years. Nevertheless, three weeks after Piqueo's opened, I found myself winding my way up the pockmarked hills of Bernal Heights to see what the city's newest Peruvian place had to offer.
If the swarms of hungry locals are any indication, Piqueo's is already a full-blown success. When my friend and I walked in, it was still light outside and the restaurant was only half-full, but for the better part of dinner, I watched the seemingly never-ending crowd on the sidewalk outside replenish itself every time a lucky group sat down. Undoubtedly, one of the secrets to Piqueo's instantaneous popularity is the mere virtue of its existence: this is a part of town with very few chic restaurants. Chef/owner Carlos Altamirano and his wife Shu (who also own Mochica) put a lot of care into making the space sophisticated and inviting. Arched doorways divide the restaurant into three rooms, and the many windows keep it feeling light and airy. Vivid photographs of modern-day Peru hang on brick red walls, and a lemon tree blooms on the granite bar in front of the petite open kitchen.
Piqueo's bills itself as "contemporary Peruvian cuisine," which seems to mean a mix of California-grown ingredients and items flown in from Altamirano's native Peru -- the giant corn that appears in nearly every dish, for instance -- combined in authentic Peruvian preparations. The menu is divided into piqueos (small plates), ceviches, and entrées. Every meal begins with a small bowl of what they call picadillos, a mixture of fried whole garbanzo beans and dried corn kernels showered with flecks of tomato, red onion, cilantro and queso fresco. It was served with a spoon and nothing else, so we ended up eating it with our fingers. If heroin is anything like these zingy niblets, I can see how you might not notice when Social Services takes your kid. Thank God my friend was dieting -- I got to eat most of the bowl myself.
Since ceviche is a signature Peruvian dish, we started with the ceviche mixto ($14). Like nearly everything we ordered, it was dramatically plated. Two mussels on the half-shell and a tangle of raw red onion sheltered chunks of halibut, squid, and prawns. The lime marinade was brash and spicy thanks to aji limo and rocoto, red Peruvian chilies, and we found ourselves wishing for a spoon to better lap it up. The bright coral prawns were the best part of the dish, and if I went again, I'd simply order the ceviche de camarones.
After one bite, I dismissed the choclo peruano ($9) as too much like the picadillos to be worth ordering separately. But the cold salad of giant Peruvian corn, chunks of queso fresco, tomatoes, red onions, and lemon-oregano dressing eventually won me over. Though its flavors are indeed similar -- it's practically the same dish, except for the fried garbanzos -- it provided a cool and spirited contrast to the warm dishes we ordered. Word to the wise: it's hard to avoid palate fatigue when so many dishes are seasoned with the same spices and flavors, so order carefully.
Our waitress raved about the anticuchon ($10), skewered sirloin brochettes drizzled with sweet and spicy BBQ-style panca sauce, but we found the meat overcooked and the sauce salty beyond reason. I simply couldn't finish what I put on my plate. It was also one-dimensional, save for the delectable puddle of avocado crema, which might have rescued a properly seasoned rendition from monotony.
Other than the picadillos, our favorite dish of the night was a plate of fried plantains in an orange-cinnamon glaze ($7). I'm not much for bananas, but I have adored plantains since I first tried them in an El Salvadoran restaurant with a heap of black beans and tangy sour cream on the side. As our waitress warned us, these are sweet enough to be dessert, so we decided to eat them last. From the caramelized sugars in the sauce to the slightly sour, creamy mash of the platanitos, every bite was bliss.
Unfortunately, we'd forgotten about the garlic shrimp ($10) still coming our way. After dessert, it was hard to go back, and when I woke up with vampire-slaying breath the next morning, I sort of wished I hadn't. Still, the shrimp were nicely cooked and the griddled bread was the perfect sponge for all that garlicky sauce.
Our waitress was knowledgeable and friendly, and any small flubs in service -- the lack of changed plates between courses, the traffic jam of dishes sent out too quickly by the kitchen -- should work themselves out as Piqueo's gets through opening month madness. Even if they don't, I'm already craving those picadillos.
830 Cortland Avenue
Open for dinner 7 nights a week