San Francisco houses so many fabulous and exciting restaurants in its more notable districts – the Mission, Downtown, Haight-Ashbury, the Marina, to name a few – that traveling outside those familiar areas can often be intimidating. Piqueo’s is one of those restaurants who, nestled far off the beaten path, might have you pausing at its far-flung locale. However, it is well worth the journey through the Mission and into Bernal Heights, and once you find it you’ll have trouble believing that you haven’t been coming to this Peruvian restaurant for years.
Each food creation is thoughtfully prepared by Chef Carlos Altamirano, a native of Southern Peru. He can be found on any given day in Piqueo’s open kitchen, crafting Peruvian delights made-to-order. Before this most recent undertaking, Chef Altamirano worked at well-known restaurants such as One Market and Restaurant Lulu, his experiences there likely attributing to Piqueo’s extensive and savory menu. His dishes appeal both to longtime fans of Peruvian cuisine and those diners getting their first taste.
Favorably located almost at the end of Cortland Avenue, a street laced with a delightful array of boutique clothes shops and fun bars, Piqueo’s resides in the heart of Bernal Heights. The green corner restaurant stands proudly across the street from the famed Maggie Mudd, an ice cream shop offering not only the usual flavors, but also lactose-free and vegan ice cream choices. Parking is available on the street at metered spots, and my dinner date and I took the opportunity of being parked a little ways down Cortland Avenue to stroll through and experience a piece of the animated neighborhood.
Immediately upon entering Piqueo’s, we felt welcomed into a homey atmosphere. Genial greetings from the bustling staff imparted the warm feeling of being in a good friend’s home. Tables in the main dining room were arranged closely to accommodate the size of the small space, contributing to a lively yet intimate ambiance. Striking burgundy walls were complemented by flickering candles on each table, softening the walls to a soft, fireside red. The warm glow was increasingly enticing as the evening wore on, the candles’ shadows creating dancing pixies amidst romantic lighting and tantalizing aromas.
Despite the restaurant being crowded and loud with voices, the wait for our table was nonexistent. We were seated in a back alcove, what Piqueo’s calls their “party room”, which can accommodate larger groups when they need the space. Adjacent to a picturesque, art-deco inspired bar showcasing their extensive wine selection, on this particular evening this back section had the added benefit of affording us more privacy from other diners. Our table also had a bit of a wobble, which the hostess laughed about as though it was an old family furnishing, much loved and therefore tolerated.
While we waited for our waitress, we were served a complimentary appetizer of Spicy Fried Chickpeas that were positively addicting. The salted chickpeas were mixed with Peruvian corn, cotija cheese, red onion, and cilantro, and provided an amazing spice and crunchy, rough texture. We couldn’t decide if we should eat them with a fork (resulting in lots of rolling chickpeas) or by hand. They were gone in just a few short moments, my dinner companion and I having fully enjoyed the Peruvian amuse bouche of sorts. Ready for the next course, we perused our menus with a bit of intimidation, finding the choices too enticing and extensive to narrow easily. With about fifty options and each dish sounding better than the last, it was difficult to know where to begin. We noted that the same two or three garnishes and sauces, such as tamarindo, soffrito and corn, were used on many dishes.
Eventually a waitress arrived armed with dinner ideas and wine suggestions. Since the restaurant’s specialties are tapas, we easily agreed to order a variety of Peruvian dishes and split them. The waitress suggested an organic wine for my dinner companion, while I opted for the sangria, whose reputation preceded it. Unlike other more traditional sangrias, Piqueo’s recipe includes rum, a delightful twist on this fruity wine. The glass of sangria housed several kinds of fruit, including oranges and grapes, giving the drink a lightly sweet flavor. It was refreshing and turned out to be a wonderful complement to the spicy food that followed.
We started with Ceviche Piqueo, or diced halibut marinated in lime juice and served with yam and cilantro. Almost sashimi-like in rawness, the ceviche was spicier than I was expecting. I later learned this influence comes from traditional Peruvian cuisine. Not your usual ceviche, it included crunchy yellow corn as well as yams and a distinct citrus note from the lime. The plating was also delightful and turned out to set the stage for all the tapas that followed. The sauces– red, green, and orange dots of color on a white plate— were artistically splashed just before the sides of the plate with the food deservedly taking center stage.
Almost immediately after receiving the ceviche, a waiter arrived with Palta Rellena, an avocado stuffed with ensalada rusa and chicken. The Palta Rellena was an absolute treat, the ripe and mature avocado combining with tender, lightly seasoned chicken. If you favor avocados, I would recommend requesting two orders as the delicious portion did not do our lustful stomachs justice.
The next dish was Caigua Rellena, an oven-baked Peruvian sweet pepper stuffed with diced beef, soffrito, and melted cheese. It was served very hot, as if symbolic of the spice of the pepper. The soffrito added a lovely garlicky and onion-infused flavor to the dish, which went well with the cheese and pepper. My dinner companion was especially fond of the way spices interacted with the generous serving of beef.
Our last dish was Empanada, a sweet pastry dough filled with picadillo of chicken. Served with a green salad topped with large slices of red onion and tamarindo sauce, it was a generous serving. The sweet pastry, meatier chicken, and tart tamarindo sauce were like a well-executed contradiction in terms. The pastry filling didn’t skimp out on chicken as I had feared it might, providing a satisfying and filling tapa that ended up being my favorite dish of the evening.
Piqueo’s location at the end of Cortland Avenue is not surprising given the many quaint and almost iconic San Francisco eateries that line the street. The stroll down to the end of the block, past classic San Francisco haunts such as Progressive Grounds, The Liberty Café, and Maggie Mudd, is a fun walk that will set an excellent tone to your evening. Unpretentious and less corporate than its neighboring restaurants, Piqueo's still manages to maintain a highly professional and trendy feel. Our dining experience was reminiscent of going to a favorite uncle and aunt’s home for dinner, with lovingly crafted food and the added bonus of beautifully presented tasty Peruvian tapas. We will definitely return, perhaps again to our favorite wobbly table.