While we have no shortage of Peruvian restaurants in San Francisco (and, certainly, in the Mission), I’m always looking for that one that does it all really well. Enter Kimbara, in the space that used to house Bissap Baobab (the club, not the restaurant). Kimbara’s makeover makes clear they intend to party, complete with sparkly disco balls and a DJ booth.

The name Kimbara is a blending of the Celia Cruz song “Quimbara” and owner/chef Sylvia Ormeño’s daughter’s name, Kimberly, but also hearkens to a famous nightclub in Lima, Peru. And, from a look at their Facebook page, that’s exactly what’s happening here. Once they clear the dinner tables, the dancing starts!  The space is newly huge, modern, a bit too brightly lit for my dining taste, with huge video screens playing music videos and sporting events.

Kimbara is an offshoot of El Porteño, a longtime, family-run Peruvian restaurant on Mission near Geneva. (The Ormeños will also be opening a second El Porteño in the old Alba Ray’s space.)  Personally, I loved the small, dark intimacy of Bissap’s music hall, but I was here to sample the food.

On our first visit, the BF and I ordered ALL THE THINGS.  Or, at least, many of the starters. All our items came out lickety-split. We started out with probably my favorite Peruvian dish of all time, anticuchos.

Anticucho de corazon.

Kimbara makes a chicken and a vegetarian version of this classic dish, but the standard is made with beef heart. Don’t be afraid!  The heart is sliced into thin tranches and marinated for 24 hours, usually in some kind of vinegar with chilies until it is tender and very flavorful.  When it is done well, this is grilling at its very best: savory, juicy, tender, charred, meat.  Too often this dish is overcooked and turns out dry, or not marinated long enough, so that the beef is too chewy.  Kimbara came through.  This was wonderful.  Also lovely were the grilled potatoes that came with, napped with a kicky aji amarillo sauce, and another hot sauce for dipping.  This dish is my Proustian madeleine, as it takes me back to childhood and visits to Peru and Bolivia.  Please, be brave and try them.

Next, came an order of leche de tigre ceviche.

Leche de tigre ceviche.

Kimbara offers a few versions of cured/marinated fish:  the classic; the “Chalaco” ceviche, which includes shellfish and fish; the Kimbara leche de tigre; a “regular” leche de tigre and “tiraditos” (which is fish strips simply marinated in lime juice without chilies.)  Leche de tigre (“tiger’s milk) refers to the juices that come from the marinade: a milky, tart and spicy concoction. Here, the leche de tigre ceviche comes in a parfait glass, which for me made it a bit difficult to eat.  While the fish was fresh and the leche nicely tangy, there was too much liquid for my taste, so the fish wasn’t the star. But I did enjoy the “fingers” of fried calamari (guilty pleasure; pretty sure they were frozen and out of a bag.)

Next, we shared beef empanadas.

Beef empanadas.

These were properly fried (keep your baked empanadas away from my plate), crispy and delicious, probably the BF’s favorite dish of the night.  They make chicken and vegetarian ones too, which I would venture to say are probably very good as well.  Served with a rocoto pepper sauce for dipping and salsa criolla (a typical red onion and tomato salad.)

Next up, salt & pepper chicken wings.

Alitas.

I’m not really sure if these have any Peruvian legitimacy, but I would guess that most cultures have some kind of fried chicken dish.  These were crispy and served with fried jalapenos and scallions, and a lemony/peppery dipping sauce.  Don’t know if I’d get them again, but if you like wings, these were a good representation of the genre.

Another very typical Peruvian standard is the causa.

Causa de pollo.

Often made with seafood, causa is a pretty tower of cold, lemony, whipped potato, layered with a mayonnaise-laced salad of shrimp or crab, but here with chicken, which is also a typical offering.  I found it strange that they don’t offer a seafood version except in the trio sampler, which includes shrimp causa.  I’m just not a fan of this dish with chicken, so while it was tasty, it wasn’t my favorite. But, if you don’t eat seafood, you should try it.  The potato in this dish makes it all worthwhile.  They also have two vegetarian options of the causa, if you are so inclined.

Finally, we had the fried yuca.

Perfectly crisp and light, with a rocoto cream … we will always order these if they’re on the menu. There is also a sweet-potato version.

For our second visit, we restrained ourselves. Starting out with the classico ceviche.

Ceviche classico. It was a perfect rendition of this dish. Silky cuts of fish (maybe snapper?) marinated in lime juice, with sliced onion, cilantro, and rocoto chilies, with a bit of sweet potato on the side, and two versions of Peruvian corn: cancha (like big-ass corn nuts) and hominy.  This is exactly what you’d find in Peru, and it did not disappoint.

For my main I got the choros a la Chalaca: steamed mussels with a vegetable medley.

Choros a la Chalaca.

Unfortunately, the mussels were inundated with minced red onion, so much so that I had to scrape most of it off as it was really overpowering, as well as rocoto, and the two corns.  But the mussels themselves — I think New Zealand mussels, from the looks of the beautifully glowing green shells — were plump, limey and super filling.

The BF ordered the churrasco a lo pobre.

Churrasco a Lo Pobre.

Another one of my favorites. “A lo pobre” is a poor man’s dish, an entree that comes with an egg to stretch the meal further. As I’d take an egg on just about anything, this is not a knock. The entree took a really long time to come out, and since we were one of only three other tables that evening, it was a bit curious.  But worth the wait: the NY strip steak itself was fantastic; wonderfully marinated and juicy, tender, it came sided by a huge snake of sweet platano frito (fried plantain), and tacu tacu — a Peruvian staple of white beans mixed with rice into a kind of mash. And that egg … ay, Mami.

Besides the wait on the steak, service was warm, attentive and glitch-free. The food was all pretty stellar, too, so Kimbara is not suffering from opening jitters (we went twice within their first few weeks.)  Kimbara has a full bar (their Pisco Sour is spot on), Peruvian beer, and wine.

They’ve also got quite a few vegetarian options, and several chaufas, that well-known Peruvian/Asian fusion standard of fried rice (or quinoa) and veggies, chicken, or seafood.  The menu is worth exploring to find your favorites.  My only disappointment is they don’t have papa a la Huancaina (another cold, cheesy potato dish) nor aji de gallina (a spicy, creamy chicken dish), but maybe the menu will change up periodically.

I’ve walked by since we ate there, and they haven’t seemed to be very full at dinner time, although their FB page shows packed houses for the disco nights.  Let’s welcome another family-owned business to the Mission!

Kimbara
3380 19th Street
San Francisco, CA  94110