Tambo Pleases With Peruvian Plates
Tambo is one of Oakland’s finest under-the-radar ethnic restaurants.
chef and owner Patricia Rios
Photo by Lori Eanes
Other than a handful of pisco sours and a couple of dinners spaced out over the past 20 years, my familiarity with Peruvian cuisine is entirely vicarious. Four dinners at Tambo in downtown Oakland may not put me in the league of my writer friend Tom Downey, who has surveyed the high-end and fusion restaurant scenes in Lima, Peru, and researched the “pisco wars” in Chile and Peru (both countries claim bragging rights). But these recent meals do, I think, justify my endorsement of the 2-year-old Tambo as one of the Town’s finest under-the-radar ethnic restaurants.
By virtue of editing food and travel stories for another magazine, I recognize the names of Lima’s world-renowned chefs and restaurants, such as Rafael Osterling at El Mercado, Gastón Acurio of Astrid y Gastón (and operations in a dozen other countries), Pedro Miguel Schiaffino of Malabar, and Virgilio Martínez at Central. But until I make my own pilgrimage to the Andes, I’ll be quite content to keep dipping into the many appetizers, entrees, and desserts that chef/owner Patricia Rios has packed into her bountiful menu at Tambo. Rios may not aim to place Tambo in the Michelin-studded constellations where studied multiculti dishes are surgically constructed with tweezers and shrouded in smoke and foam, but she does radiate her own luminary charm and create unpretentiously artful plates that are as pleasing to the eye as to the palate.
Before we knew I’d be writing about Tambo, Robin and I made two visits using those introductory discount coupons that fill your email inboxes and seed the dining marketplace these days. They entitled us to “tasting menus” of ceviches, causas, small plates, and a dessert.
I’ve known and loved ceviche for decades, although its Peruvian origins and reported Moorish roots in Granada, Spain, are more recent news to me. Tambo’s versions, with such names as Nikkei, al Rocoto, clasico, mixto, and al pesto, vary in the combinations of the initially raw seafood (halibut, calamari, shrimp, octopus, mussels, clams), the sauces that “cook” the fish (mostly riffs on the classic citrusy, garlicky, peppery, salty leche de tigre), and the extra ingredients (chewy Peruvian corn, yam, red onion, roasted seeds, avocado, bell pepper) that tweak the flavors and add color and texture. I wouldn’t let another Tambo meal go by without starting with at least one or two ceviches to whet the appetite.
Actually, at all four of our dinners, the kitchen jumped the ceviche gun and piqued our taste buds with a complimentary amuse-bouche of two croquette-like, crispy yucca balls, filled with mashed potato and served on a rectangular white plate with a squiggle of pale pink sauce. Potatoes figure prominently in the cuisine of Peru, as should be expected from the tubers’ birthplace, where nearly 4,000 varieties are grown. Mashed, mixed with lime, onion, and chili (aji), and formed into a smooth, round cake, or timbale, they provide the foundation for causas. At Tambo, these chilled, dumpling-textured appetizers are layered or topped with crab and avocado (causa limena), crispy prawns, or a vegetarian combo of pureed artichokes, asparagus, and avocado, and drizzled with creamy, cheesy huancaina sauce and basil-cilantro oil. Like the ceviches, they can be ordered in a sampler.
If you haven’t gotten enough starches yet, throw in a few empanadas. Tambo offers four kinds (and a tasting sampler) of these flaky pastry pockets—stuffed with chicken stew, mushrooms, lomo saltado (beef, red onion, tomato), or corn, cilantro, and cheese. Or you could order the papa a la huancaina, boiled potatoes with the aforementioned cheesy sauce, a quail egg, and olives. For more protein-rich small plates, you can opt for a brocheta—a skewer of chicken or beef (with fried potatoes and Peruvian corn, of course) or seasonal fish and shrimp (our favorite)—or try a bowl of boiled mussels or small-plate servings of crispy fried fish or grilled beef hearts.
It took Robin and I two additional dinners to make our way to the entrees, and even though this is where you’re going to get your big portions of surf and turf, be prepared for lots more potatoes and rice, as well. Take the Peruvian standard lomo saltado. Strips of beef tenderloin are stir-fried in a delicious Chinese-influenced, soy-infused sauce with onions, tomatoes, green onions, cilantro, and garlic, and served atop a huge bed of french fries, with a bowl of white rice on the side. In chaufa de marisco, large shrimp hunker down on top of a mountain of Chinese-style fried rice. And the daydream-worthy aji de gallina presents heaped shreds of chicken in a luscious, mild, yellow curry-like sauce that you can spoon onto the accompanying pyramid of white rice and large chunks of purple potato. There are many other enticing large plates of fish (trout, salmon) and meat (rib eye, lamb), but for something purely vegetarian, try the spectacular pimenton relleno—a red bell pepper filled with a savory, rustic mélange of quinoa, mushrooms, corn, and raisins.
If it’s possible, save room for one of Tambo’s 10 desserts, all made in house and ranging from straightforward classics like coconut flan, alfajores (sandwich cookies), and arroz con leche to mango cheesecake, a “chocolate duet” of genoise covered with dark and milk chocolate mousse, and monterosa—a decadent layering of mascarpone, ricotta, and sponge cake topped with strawberries and currants.
Other than the danger of carb overloading, I can think of only two caveats about Tambo. When you walk in the door, the tasteful décor does transport you into a warm world of its own, but getting to the door means negotiating one of downtown’s less beckoning blocks (one Tambo server called it “sketchy”). And the lack of a full liquor license means that the faux pisco sours are made with vermouth, fun but lightweight; you’ll get more bang for your buck from the limited but interesting selection of wines and beers. In the big picture, those are minor concessions to make for deep and fulfilling culinary travel so close to home.
Peruvian. 1414 Jefferson St., Oakland, 510-663-8262. Ceviches $9.50–$19, causas $8–$16, small plates/appetizers $9–$17, large plates/entrees $11–$18, desserts $6–$8. Serves lunch 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri. and dinner 5:30 p.m.–10 p.m. Mon.–Sat. and 5 p.m.–9 p.m. Sun. www.TamboRestaurant.com