Pucquio takes Peruvian cuisine from commonplace to exceptional.
Cebiches dominate the menu.
Photos by Lori Eanes
Spain and Denmark are famous for restaurants that often rank first among the annually announced World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Peru might fly lower on the radar, but in 2016, three dining establishments made the list, with one at No. 4. While San Francisco boasts Gastón Acurio’s acclaimed La Mar as a destination for gourmands and tourists, Peruvian cooking in the East Bay hasn’t quite been synonymous with haute cuisine. Pucquio is changing that.
A little more than three years ago, Carlos Moreira took over the easy-to-miss space on College Avenue in Rockridge that was previously occupied by The Guest Chef, a short-lived experiment in rotating pop-ups in which Moreira had participated. The 38-year-old chef, a native of Callao, Peru’s major seaport adjoining the Lima District, had an amassed decade of experience in notable Bay Area kitchens, including Jardiniere, The Fifth Floor, and Café Majestic, and operated his own Allpa Culinaria catering and private dining business before opening Pucquio with his wife, Lissette Quiroz. Small type on the Pucquio menu proclaims “Contemporary Peruvian Street Food,” but while Moreira has created a casual, family-feeling atmosphere, what he delivers is closer in concept and execution to fine dining than diner or truck-stop fare.
The foundation of his cooking is not untraditional or unexpected. The menu opens with cebiches, the cured and seasoned raw fish preparation that is popular throughout the Americas but originated in Peru perhaps 2,000 years ago, and features such familiar items as platanos fritos (fried plantains), tacu-tacu marisco (a mixed seafood platter with rice and canary beans), and lomo saltado, the classic, Chinese-influenced beef-tomato-onion stir-fry. But Moreira transforms the commonplace into the extraordinary at every turn and bolsters his menu with surprising manipulations of the fresh fish, meat, and produce that he plucks from local markets and artisan purveyors.
The miniscule storefront seats maybe 20 at low, wood-topped tables packed closely together and a half dozen tall chairs at the bar overlooking the small open kitchen where magic happens before your eyes. On both our visits, Robin and I opted for counter seats, the better to chat with Moreira while we sipped wine and sangria, nibbled on complimentary fried, salty, corn kernels, and to observe his obsessively meticulous knife, sauce, scissors, and tweezers skills.
With only one chef assisting him with prep and plating, Moreira makes every dish to order, including the stunningly complex cebiches—at least seven choices nightly. That demands concentration, facility, and timing, and it means that if you’re dining in a full house, patience is required. Still, Moreira manages to answer questions about techniques and ingredients (the most important is “love,” he will say), and exude the twinkly charm and warm hospitality that makes the counter the best seat in the house.
The loma saltado.
Whatever else you order at Pucquio, you must start with a cebiche or two, or a trio of small versions for the price of two. On our first visit, because trout, tuna, and rock fish all sounded enticing, we had the mosáico cebichero, in which all three were “cooked” in a ginger and celery leche de tigre (a citrus, onion, and chile marinade). The tuna was sliced into a ribbon and wrapped around the other fish, forming a timbale that rested in the leche; it was topped with crispy yam chips and frilly seaweed. When we returned, we were hard-pressed not to order the cebiche trucha, because the trout has been magnificent, but we answered the call of a wild “Pan-AmericAsian” cebiche special—slices of whitefish rolled and sandwiched between rectangular sheets of daikon radish and garnished with carrot, onion, Thai chilies, and peanuts. The flavors and textures were as dazzling and balanced as the sculptural presentation. We watched Moreira assemble other cebiches, applying the precision of a sushi chef to whatever fish had come in that day and dressing it with such chilies as aji limo, aji amarillo, and rocoto, as well as mandarin orange, sesame, lime, fennel, yucca, avocado, and caviar.
The cebiches are enough to set Pucquio apart, but don’t stop there. We didn’t, although on two visits we couldn’t dent the Pa’ empezar (starters), salads, or postres (desserts) sections of the menu, which means future visits hold the promise of seared tuna with Peruvian lima beans, seafood picadillo in a potato croquette, confit of pork belly served with purple corn and chichia jus, quinoa salad with roasted beets, avocado, orange, fennel, and juniper, fried beignets with sweet potato and pisco anglaise, pan-fried genoise cake in spice molasses, and homemade ice cream and sorbets.
We can, though, swear by the seductive charms of one special starter—a roasted half chicken nestled among lettuce, onions, and quail eggs, and swimming in escabeche, a vinegary-sweet, pan-drippings sauce that begged to be licked from the platter. And the four (of seven) Pa’ seguirla (main courses) we tried were nothing short of spectacular. Adobo de chancho was fork-tender braised pork shoulder plated with canary beans, fatty lardons, and zarza criolla, a red onion-chile salsa. Aji de gallinna was a mundane-sounding pulled-chicken stew that soared into the pantheon of upscale comfort food when Moreira spiked it gently with aji amarillo and added botija olives, walnuts, two large chunks of yellow potato, and two halves of almost-hard boiled egg. In the lomo saltado, the pieces of high-grade beef, onion, and tomato wedges were arranged over white rice, with a Lincoln Log–like stack of french fries to the side. An optional sunny-side-up egg added visual intrigue and a slosh of binding flavor when I tossed everything together on the plate. (Our gracious server, Jordan, would have done that, but I wanted the honors.) Most visually arresting was the chupe de camarones, a creamy, savory bisque with an island of white rice in the middle on which rested toothsome prawns and Peruvian corn. The upward-gazing head of a large shrimp rose out of the soup. A poached farm egg usually tops it off, but Robin ordered it on the side so I could have it. (A platter of crisp whole fish with mussels, clams, squid, and prawns looked just as amazing as it swept past us toward a table of four.)
From the humble fried plantains to the intricate cebiches and ambitious entrées, Moreira’s respect, even reverence, for his ingredients (and his customers) gives a Pucquio meal a singular vibrancy. It doesn’t come cheap: Two people can easily spend $100 on four dishes, and that’s before dessert and tip and indulging in beer, chicha (purple corn brew), limonada, late harvest muscatel, or as we did, in the fruity, spicy sangria, and a splendid 2008 Clos le Fite Priorat red blend from Catalonia. But you get what you pay for—one of the best nights out the East Bay has to offer.
Peruvian. 5337 College Ave., Oakland, 510-658-7378. Cebiches $20, starters $18, salads $15, main courses $28-$65, sides $7, desserts $9, soft drinks $4, beer $6, wine by the glass $13-$15, by the bottle $52-$85. Serves dinner Tue.-Sun. 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Pucquio.com CC☎ $$$$
Published online on March 10, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.