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A Taste of Peru in Bernal Heights

If you're not familiar with Bernal, just take Mission south past 30th Street, hang a left on Cortland, and you'll find yourself in this quaint, hilly neighborhood in no time. Open since March 2007 to critical consumer reviews noting frustrating service and high prices, Piqueo's -- with its zesty contemporary Peruvian food and homey atmosphere -- is now winning over a loyal neighborhood following and attracting foodies from across town (despite continued glitches here and there).

The restaurant, situated in the space that Moki's vacated when it moved to an arguably less cozy spot down the street in 2006, is segmented into three rooms. The layout features tables arranged near the front windows, a six-seater bar with a live lemon tree on the counter and an open kitchen, a middle area with a few tables and a view of the service station, and a back section filled with tables seating about ten diners. The covered, high-ceilinged "patio" seating in the rear, such a welcome addition during the Moki's days, appears to be nonfunctioning. Chef/owner Carlos Altamirano, who also owns Mochica, exudes a teddy bear-like charm and will often stop to welcome diners as he oversees the open kitchen.

With about 24 piqueos (small plates), four ceviches, and roughly 20 entrees (including daily specials) on the menu, it's a good thing that they bring out a bowl of picadillos as sustenance during the selection process. The fried chickpeas with giant, soft Peruvian corn kernels (choclo), smaller, roasted-hard corn kernels (cancha), tomato chunks, bits of onion and a few specks of queso fresco keep your strength going and, on their own, make the drive across town worthwhile.

In fact, the kitchen can be known to exude even more hospitality; not only was our table sent a complementary appetizer of fried balls of ahi tuna salad (sounds strange, but it works if you like aioli), but we noticed that the same courtesy was extended to a nearby table of eight super young, super casual hipster girls who were sharing a few dishes and drinking only water (a beverage status that is often pooh-poohed by veteran restaurant staff). In all, you can tell that the people who run Piqueo's have a great attitude.

Shrimp shines in the Humita Dulce con Camarones al Curry ($10), which consists of tamale-like sweet corn dough with raisins inside, topped with shrimp cooked in a curry sauce. Actually, the seafood does well here. Of the fresh ceviche, we tried the halibut and the mixto, rich with two gigantic mussels, squid, shrimp, and large chunks of halibut, which to some palates was disconcertingly raw (to others, just right). Both ceviches were hidden under the equivalent of a large red onion's worth of slices and accompanied by a yam, choclo, and cancha.

The most interesting of the piqueos was the Pobrecito ($8), a rice-and-beans mixture served under a plantain with a fried egg on top. Another vegetarian-friendly dish, the Champiñones al Ajo ($9), was tasty in a garlic, butter, and white wine sauce, but we noted that whole mushroom caps made for better eating than chopped mushroom pieces. The Anticuchon ($10), chunks of grilled sirloin on skewers, was a bit tough, but the panca sauce and green huacatay sauce added a flavor dimension that kept us intrigued enough to finish the plate.

Another signature small plate is the Bolitas de Yucca Relenas con Queso ($9) -- three perfectly fried yucca balls stuffed with queso fresco, surprisingly light with a crisp outside and oozy inside. In fact, much of the fried menu items are a delight,
notably the Papa Rellena ($8), a deep-fried mashed potato ball stuffed with braised beef, egg and sofrito, served on one visit with an unspeakably delicious, warmly spicy rocoto sauce.

Larger plates are spottier; the black pepper-crusted ahi tuna ($19) was a disappointment. The tuna was overcooked and so dry that even the accompanying cilantro, white beans and sweet sauces couldn’t resuscitate it. Another unfortunate fish dish was the grilled salmon skewer, served a little too rare to work with the overly sweet raisin sauce that accompanied it. However, it was obvious that the fish was very fresh and wild -- a plus.

While we were very impressed by the Churrasco ($18), a tasty sirloin steak grilled and served with watercress and chimichurri salad, the Lomita Saltado ($16), was beyond underwhelming. We are big fans of the traditional Peruvian dish, Lomo Saltado, and perhaps we were spoiled years ago at Fina Estampa by their perfectly dry-sauteed mixture of New York strip steak, tomatoes, onion, potato fries, and a light smattering of soy sauce, salt, and herbs. The Piqueo's version was all but ruined by the too-early addition of a spicy, tomatoey broth, which during cooking rendered the sautéed chunks of meat bland and chewy.

For dessert, we sampled the torta de chocolate and the flan de camote. The former was a dense chocolate cake with nuts on the outside, a huge scoop of a lucuma (resembling maple) ice cream and caramel sauce. The latter was my favorite -- a sweet potato flan with an orange-cinnamon sauce. Needless to say, both desserts went down easy. Friends tell us that on a recent visit they loved an almost-too-sweet dessert of rich, thick caramel milk topped with stiffened lucuma whipped cream.

While the sangria ($8 glass/$26 pitcher) is notable, our winemaker pals note that the wine list is only decent despite its inclusion of wines from Europe, California, and South America; moreover, none of the wines are listed with their vintage years, making it awkward to order anything knowledgeably. Still, with close to 20 wines by the glass and upwards of 40 by the bottle -- as well as ten beer choices, four from Peru -- the selection should please most diners.

There are a few minor new-opening glitches -- an online reservation system that doesn't take same-day reservations with no alert to diners, for example -- that are easily overlooked thanks to delicious dishes with saucy swiggles and eye-catching presentations, and service that is genuine with a small-town familial appeal. Piqueo's is a nice little neighborhood spot and a fine place for sharing interesting Peruvian small plates with good friends.

Bernal Heights

Reservations Essential? Yes.