We are such a lucky neighborhood. We have so many options for places to eat, at every price point and with such a variety of cuisines. Especially Peruvian! Almost everyone knows a Peruano, if you’ve lived in the Mission long enough, and I hope almost everyone has had Peruvian food. Our newest addition to the Pantheon is Alma Cocina, which opened only a couple of months ago, in the former La Parrilla Grill space at 24th and Folsom. Alma is a little different, as far as I can tell, from other Peruvian restaurants in the area. First off, there’s not a single Peruvian tchotchke. The space is modern, with reclaimed wood and clean lines abounding, yet it feels casual and welcoming.
Chef Alex Reccio has a lot of experience, both in the Bay Area and in his native Peru. He worked for a long while at Limon, another (perhaps more traditional) Peruvian restaurant in the Mission, and then took some time to go back to his homeland to work with renowned chefs there. Energized, he returned to San Francisco to make his long-held dream come true: his own restaurant, cooking the food he loves. It appears to me that Chef Reccio is trying to up the ante of his country’s cuisine by making it healthier and more accessible to people who follow vegetarian, paleo or gluten-free lifestyles.
We started out with a glass of sangria made with Lillet Rouge, while the BF had Cristal (a Peruvian lager):
We shared a ceviche — the Costeño, served in the coastal cities of Peru, with white fish, calamari, shrimp and octopus, in “leche de tigre” (“tiger’s milk” — the combination of lime and fish juices that emanate from the marinade) and toasted choclo, the big white corn grown in the Andes.
Very fresh, great textures, a bit spicy, and I loved the pureed sweet potato that added a hint of sweetness.
For his main, the BF ordered Andean-style chicharron with uchucuta sauce — a creamy sauce made with rocoto, a small Peruvian pepper with a heat level about the same as a scotch bonnet or habanero — and huacatay, an Andean herb that is a cross between mint and cilantro in flavor.
The crispy pork leaned on potatoes confit, topped with an onion salad and queso fresco. I thought his pork was divine! The sauce tasted like a slightly spicy gravy, so it was a pretty homey dish.
I got their signature pollo a la brasa (spit-roasted chicken), a Peruvian staple, but I was perplexed why it didn’t come with the typical aji verde, which in my experience is its standard companion. Yes, it came with aji amarillo, and chimichurri, both of which were good, but nothing beats a garlicky aji verde with roast chicken. The chicken came with two sides, and I picked the arroz chaufa and the yuca frita:
Arroz chaufa is Chinese fried rice. There is quite a large Chinese community in Peru, going back hundreds of years (Japanese, too), and Chinese food is so common there, it’s been integrated in a sort of fusion-y style. The rice here was flavorful, though I didn’t really need the crunchy “noodles.” The yuca frita was nice and crispy, and the aji amarillo was the perfect spunky sauce for it. As for the chicken, I only wanted it to have crispier skin, but perhaps it had sat a little while. Otherwise, it was good, tender and moist. You can choose between dark and light meat, a quarter chicken, half a chicken, or a whole chicken.
On our second visit, a Monday night, the restaurant was much less crowded. I started with a cocktail. I went with a Fake News (timely — and bitter, as it should be), made with botanical infused soju, Lillet Blanc, antica, and a sprig of thyme.
Loved the sprig of thyme; the aroma floats up to you as you sip the cocktail. Alma has only a beer and wine license, so they’re getting inventive with their cocktails, using sherries, amaros, sakes and sojus to great effect. They also have a nice wine list filled with South American, Spanish and California labels.
We split the ceviche Nikkei, a nod to Peru’s history of fusion with Japanese cuisine, which I believe basically means they added soy sauce to the leche de tigre and, in this version, oyster sauce too:
The marinade had an unexpected sweetness from the oyster sauce, but the ahi tuna was super fresh and they are generous with it. Again, I absolutely loved the pureed sweet potato, along with the cool chunks of cucumber.
The BF ordered what, to me, is my least favorite dish on any Peruvian menu: lomo saltado. It is a hugely popular standard, and I’ve tried to like it for 50 years. It consists of quick sautéed beef — sirloin or something similar, cut into strips or cubes, cooked over very high heat, seasoned with a little soy, vinegar, and cumin, and then stir-fried with onions and peppers, usually served over rice and often with fried potatoes.
My problem with this dish is that the meat is always tough. Even at the high-end places I’ve tried, the meat is often dry and difficult to chew. My father would order it every single time, and the BF usually does, too. Alma’s was less tough than others, though the BF disagreed with me. (His other complaint was that there wasn’t enough meat, bringing to mind the old joke: “The food here is awful and the portions are so small!” I agreed; they were a little skimpy with the beef.) But Alma’s saltado was much more flavorful than many I’ve tried, and it came with a whole roasted rocoto pepper, and absolutely fantastic truffled mashed potatoes. Truffled potatoes have really nothing to do with Peruvian cuisine, as far as I know, but who cares? If this is the way Chef Reccio wants to gussy up his fare, who am I to quibble?
I had a main that I was not sure was going to work, but I was curious about it. Another beloved traditional dish, papa a la huancaina, was transformed here. It is typically cold slices of potato with a luscious cheese sauce, and is one of my top three or four Peruvian dishes of all time. Here, Alma seeks to elevate the dish by bathing fettuccini and clams in the cheese sauce (I know, a number of you, particularly Italians, are probably cringing right now), with kalamata olive “dust” and, most curiously of all, cubes of manchego.
The dish was a knock-out. Everything about it sang in my mouth. I can’t even tell you why the manchego worked, or the chef’s reasoning for including them; I really thought they would take away from the dish (too much cheese?). But they didn’t. It was delicate, the pasta perfectly al dente, and the olive dust provided a salty earthiness. And that beautifully cooked egg! This dish, of everything we’ve tried here so far, made me see that Chef Reccio can elevate his country’s cuisine without it becoming too precious, and without resorting to abstract art works on a plate.
The BF almost ordered an empanada for his dinner, but decided to get one to go, instead, for a late-night snack (good thing, too, because it wouldn’t have been enough for dinner). Well, of course we broke into it as soon as we got home.
I’m of the school that empanadas should be fried, but this was really very good — chicken, very well spiced, with a half a hard-boiled egg tucked inside, in proper Andean style, with a kalamata aioli to go with. They make it in vegetarian form, too. A must-try!
I was so pleased with all the flavors this evening, I impetuously ordered dessert to go. What a shame, because it must have been a beautiful dish when we left the restaurant, but it got totally beaten up on our walk home. A lovely, dense-yet-light flourless coconut cassava cake was wrapped in banana leaves, and topped with caramel-coated bananas, cajeta whipped cream and vanilla sauce. So many ways to be too sweet and yet it wasn’t. I don’t even care about desserts, and this was heaven.
The service at Alma is warm and knowledgeable, although we did have to wait a bit between dishes. But they’ve only been open for a few months, so that’s to be expected. One server told me that they plan to change the menu often, which is always welcome to hear. With all the Peruvian choices we have here in the Mission, I like Chef Reccio’s vision, and I hope he continues to expand on it.
2801 Folsom St. (corner of 24th & Folsom)
San Francisco, CA 94110