The Heights of Peru
Scintillating cuisine and an urban vibe make Walnut Creek’s Parada soar like the Andes.
Ají amarillo, the vibrant—no, electric—yellow chile pepper from Peru, helped propel Parada into the top echelon of Contra Costa restaurants overnight. But it’s the restaurant’s soft-spoken chef, Carlos Altamirano, who keeps the menu on course—course after incredible course.
Order a ceviche of impeccable lime-kissed snapper followed by a hunk of pork adobo—a neon pool of ají amarillo sauce spooned alongside—and you’ll get the idea.
With two contemporary Peruvian restaurants in San Francisco, Mochica and Piqueo’s, and another—three-time Michelin-star winner La Costanera—in Half Moon Bay, Altamirano has little left to prove. (To cover all bases, he operates Sanguchon, a fleet of high-end street-food trucks.) But the 42-year-old chef who “just came here to make a little money so Mom could open a restaurant in Peru” isn’t one to settle for the status quo.
You can sense that tireless energy and San Francisco’s exhilarating dining scene at Parada, where inspired potions—and a tight bar—fuel the dining room’s loud buzz. With plenty of natural light, tan wood, and bistro-simple table settings, the atmosphere feels as contemporary as the food, with casual character drawn from folk art murals and a disarming staff. Dark sangria of lingering complexity and a small pisco sour so limey it could serve as an intermezzo through several courses are particularly enjoyable under a Parisian-style red umbrella on the wraparound patio.
Contrasting elements, such as a cooling piece of yam to tone down citrus and spice, lend intrigue and harmony to Altamirano’s dishes. Skewers of fat-rich blocks of spice-rubbed pork belly are offset with a grilled mint-spiked potato. And mashed blue potatoes provide a smooth counterpoint to the pleasant chewiness of Spanish octopus.
It’s no mistake that potatoes—a staple of the Peruvian diet—are served in so many creative guises. Altamirano does have a fusion style (there are even Asian elements sprinkled throughout), but it’s all grounded in a Peruvian sensibility. Quinoa, indigenous to the high Andes, is incorporated into every aspect of the menu. As a salad, it’s tossed with greens and passion fruit vinaigrette. As an appetizer, it becomes a sturdy crust for wild shrimp. As an entrée, it’s the keynote in a vegetarian stew. And toasted, it serves as a crunchy counterpoint to creamy caramel flan.
But perhaps the dish that best reflects Peruvian cuisine is the chicken brasa—a rotisserie bird with a light brine and intense marinade that’s a specialty of many Lima restaurants. Altamirano’s half Mary’s chicken is impossibly moist and flavorful, but the chef seems most moved—he feigns a sweet death when speaking of it—by the hand-cut, skin-on garlic fries with Peruvian mint dipping sauce that come alongside the bird.
Altamirano saves his highest praise, however, for that ají amarillo. (He runs a small farm in Half Moon Bay devoted to chile peppers.) “I use it in all my cooking: to sauté, fry, and grill. The flavor is amazing.” The eponymous scallops Carlitos—parmesan-crusted scallops in ají amarillo butter—best capture the pepper’s sublime and spicy character.
Altamirano’s mastery has humble roots. The first kitchen Altamirano worked in—aside from helping his mom prep in a tiny restaurant they ran out of their home outside of Lima—was San Francisco’s Lulu, a pioneer in high-concept family-style dining, where he started as a dishwasher in 1994. Chef-owner Reed Hearon had a fiery personality but took a tender interest in Altamirano, even acting as his personal translator while bringing him up through the ranks. (Altamirano pays it forward, developing his cooks and opening restaurants to create new opportunities for his staff. The pantry chef on my second visit had started as the dishwasher only two weeks before.)
After honing his techniques at several more top-notch San Francisco restaurants, including as an opening cook at Hawthorne Lane, Altamirano returned to Peru to explore traditional cooking methods just before opening Mochica in 2004, Piqueo’s in 2007, and two years later, La Costanera, where a spectacular oceanfront view inspired him to devote every waking moment to garnering that Michelin star.
Altamirano was attracted to Walnut Creek by its warmer climate (similar to his hometown), and by a leasing opportunity that allowed him to devote two years to transform what was empty office space on the north side of Walnut Creek into an urban dining outpost. Parada was polished from the day it opened in late June. But it’s still a work in progress: Altamirano wouldn’t have it any other way. A week into the smooth opening, his thoughts were already drifting to the future, to new menu items, and to new projects at which he’ll only hint.
Contact: 7001 Sunne Ln., Walnut Creek, (925) 448-8118, paradakitchen.com. Lunch and dinner daily.