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Chowdown at El Hueco Peruvian Restaurant in Redwood City

Cruising down busy Woodside Road, you barely notice seven-month-old El Hueco in a strip mall at the corner of Central Avenue. Behind the unassuming storefront in Redwood City, executive chef Jaime Laos was reported to be serving up delicious homestyle Peruvian specialties that rivaled the best in the Bay Area. ChewChew and DeeGlaze called a Chowdown to share their find, and five other hounds answered the call.

The restaurant starts you off with a dish of "corn nuts" (roasted jumbo-sized cancha corn kernels with some bits of fried pork). These quickly dry out your tongue so you will soon need a bottle of the delicious Cuzqueña amber ale.

The first round of small plates were three ceviches: white fish, shrimp, and a mixto of fish, shrimp, octopus, clams, and mussels. El Hueco prepares its ceviche to order in a marinade heavy on the lime juice, and the tender (not mushy) texture and mouth-puckering juices worked well with thick slices of tender sweet potato and enormous corn kernels. Although these are called small plates, they were more than enough raw seafood for seven of us. But we couldn't stop there.

Our next three small plates were Papas Rellena, potato croquettes stuffed with beef; Ocopa, thickly sliced potatos smothered in a creamy peanut sauce rendered brilliantly green by Peruvian herbs and cilantro; and Anticuchos, skewers of surprisingly tender pieces of beef heart. The Ocopa, flavored with Peruvian Huacatay (imported frozen) was the favorite. I was amazed by the texture of the heart, which I would have believed was a short rib cooked sous vide, but it was a bit salty.

In an effort to try everything, we ordered seven big plates. From the menu, Aji de Gallina featured shreds of chicken breast in a rich sauce of mild yellow chillies; this was a pleasant dish, but compared with the robust flavors of some of the others, it was in my view more comforting than exciting. Quinoto featured quinoa and mixed vegetables; it looked like a salad, but was served hot and had a nice tangy flavor. For logistical reasons, we did not get around to the Parihuela, or Peruvian bouillabaisse, until we had consumed five other dishes. By that time, the broth had cooled and thickened, and the soup was uninspiring. Based on the quality of the other dishes, I'm assuming it was much better when first served.

From the specials board, we chose Carapulcra, a stew of pork and chicken (still on the bone) and potatoes. This dish uses dried potatoes, which maintained their integrity through the cooking process, providing concentrated potato-ness and no hint of sogginess. With big meaty flavor, the Carapulcra was a good match to the Zinfandel Melanie Wong so generously supplied. We also got Arroz Chaufa, a surprisingly delicious "fried rice" featuring much more intriguing spicing than your typical Chinese restaurant. And of course we got the Chupe de Mariscos, a soup of mixed seafood in a lively tasting broth enriched with eggs and probably some butter. I had about four servings.

Last but not least, we coaxed the kitchen into making us beef chow mein. Well, actually it was spaghetti-like Tallarin noodles in a Saltado preparation featuring beef, onions, and a bit of soy sauce. The beef was cooked just right, but the slippery noodles were a bit hard to eat (where are my chopsticks?).

To finish, we tried all four of the desserts. The Lacuma ice cream had a pleasant fruit flavor, and a hint of fruitcake or pumpkin pie or Thai iced tea spicing. It wasn't bad, but was overshadowed by the greatness of the other three. The Alfajores were properly delicate, buttery and sweet, and got powdered sugar everywhere. The Picarones were doughnuts served in a lightly spiced syrup. The balance of sweet and savory flavors, and the wonderful texture, could be quite addicting. The Pisco ice cream came on strong, like a vanilla ice cream milkshake spiked with brandy and studded with fat raisins rehydrated in brandy. Woo-hoo.

With its warm service and relaxed atmosphere, El Hueco made us feel very welcome. Our server made every effort to answer our questions about ingredients and sources, showing us the dried potatoes and asking chef Jaime to come out to tell us about (and give us a whiff of) Huacatay. She also was very accommodating with extra plates so that we could eat family style.

Thanks for the invitation, it was a great time.

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El Hueco
593 Woodside Rd, Redwood City, CA 94061

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  1. This was a wonderful meal. Jaime's style of cooking seems simple and straightforward but with every bite you get more depth and complexity. Highlights for me were the Ocopa, spiked with the huacatay herb, a new flavor for me, close to cilantro but not really. The beef hearts may have been the best I've ever had anywhere, perfect texturally and smoky from the grill. For mains, the quinoto was a star. Another seemingly simple dish but subtly complex once you dig in. The nutty grains married well with the intense vegetable flavors. Even the fried rice sparkled with deep, intense flavor. The Carapulcra with its deep meaty flavor was classic Peruvian comfort food all the way.
    For dessert, the Picarones, dubbed Peruvian beignets by the hounds, were over the top, accompanied by a great cinnamon, orange peel sauce.
    What a great addition to the RWC dining scene. Jaime's food is soulful, honest, with terrific depth of flavor. Worth the trip from anywhere on the Peninsula
    Thank you Melanie for the delicious bottle of Zin and to the rest of the hounds for a fun dining experience.

    1. This was a terrific meal. Thank you to ChewChew for organizing this meet up and to "lpfch" for being the first to post about El Hueco. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/681166

      I only took one photo, but as it turns out, the dish, Ocopa, wound up being my favorite dish.
      http://twitpic.com/1hxqm1 The huacatay and peanut based sauce has more oomph, depth, fragrance, and spice than the version I've had at La Mar Cebicheria Peruana, this is superior. The texture of the potatoes was spot on, waxy and tender, not mealy and falling apart like at some other Peruvian restaurants around here.

      The ceviches were all very well-balanced toward the tart, limey side with non-sulphurous shaved red onions, fresh rocoto chili, tender and sweet yams, and hunks of that giant corn on the cob. I was quite honest with Chef Jaime when he asked me how the ceviches stacked up. I said that I liked his dressing better than La Mar or Inka's, but La Mar uses better white fish in the pescado (for a much higher price). Then I asked if he would make tiradito for me if I brought in my own fresh tuna tuna or yellowtail, and he said he would, score!

      I liked the Quinoto quite a bit, maybe I was hungry for some veggies at that point, and appreciated the lightness. Still, that carapulcra, a long-braised dish that any meat and potatoes lover could crave, hit the spot. The chaufa, one of the day's specials available with chicken or mixed seafood, confirmed for me that I should only order fried rice at Peruvian restaurants. They just do such a good job with it, better than most inexpensivve Chinese places. The one disappointment in the main dishes was the parihuela, I prefer the less-tomatoey version at La Furia Chalaca.

      As Jefferson commented, the ají de gallina, the shredded chicken in yellow chili pepper sauce was comforting. As it should be --- I'm told this is the dish that natives judge by how it compares to their own mother's home cooking. I loved the chupe, sort of siete mares meets paella.

      Corkage is $10 per the menu, although I don't recall seeing a charge on the bill. The wine was the 1997 Joseph Swan "Anniversary Selection" Russian River Valley, a special bottling of its best zinfandel vineyards that commemorated the winery's 30th birthday. It's the first of a case that I've opened, and its drinking beautifully now with mellow fruits, velvety tannins, and lively acidity to pair with food.

      All four desserts were quite good. The picarones were outstanding, lighter and crisper with a more nuanced spicing, than La Mar's or Inka's. The dulce de leche was barely tan in color and much more delicate in flavor in texture than I've had elsewhere. I'm pretty sure that the alfajores were filled with the dulce to order. I loved the Pisco ice cream and the little burst of spirits that popped out of the raisins when I bit into them.

      For a small neighborhood place, I was impressed by the stylishness of the execution, dining room appointments, tableware and level of service. El Hueco strikes that happy and most delicious medium between the inexpensive, hole-in-the-wall spots and the nuevo-Peruano hotspots. The cooking has a lot of heart, yet has the finesse of a professional chef. Prices are quite low for the quality.

      -----
      Inkas Restaurant
      3299 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110

      La Furia Chalaca
      310 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94607

      El Hueco
      593 Woodside Rd, Redwood City, CA 94061

      1. So glad everyone got to discover this wonderful place. I have been back twice, and it has been great.

        2 Replies
        1. re: lpfch

          Thanks again! What else have you ordered?

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            I actually went back last night for the third time. At this point, my family has pretty much done the entire menu, and everything has been great. We tried the ocopa and picarones last night for the first time based on comments from your group dinner and really enjoyed both of them. Jaime continues to be a wonderful host, and always takes the time to come out and talk about the food and its preparation. I hope others will take the time to discover this little hidden gem!

          1. First, our thanks to Chew Chew and Dee Glaze for arranging this dinner, Second, thanks Jefferson for the detailed, thoughtful post and photos, and Third, thanks Melanie for sharing the lovely bottle of '97 Joseph Swan "Anniversary Selection" Russian River Zinfandel.

            We echo all of the previous comments: We loved the freshness of the ceviches, the tender succulence of the anticuchos, the papa rellenos, the ocopa with it's haucatay sauce, the quinoto, the chupe - oh heck, we loved it all! We're looking forward to a return visit soon...

            Hope that Jaime can maintain this level.

            1. This was an interesting meal! Peruvian is a cuisine that I am not all that well versed in...but this was a great "reintroduction" for me ...the food was robust and homey, the ceviches were fresh and 'bright' with terrific texture...not at all 'cooked' from the marinade..I enjoyed them all...the beef hearts had a perfect chewy not gristly texture and great lip smakin' flavor..I really was surprised in a good way by the Ocopa and its attractive green color and herbal freshness! I also was drawn to the Carapulcra stew's rich flavors and spot on texture...no over cooked stringy mystery meat here..my mouth is actually watering now as I remember and write about it. The Peruvian/Chinese 'fried rice' was richly flavored and dark brown, similar in appearance to the fried rice I grew up with in New York..this was really delicious and totally unexpected.....I wonder if there is a wok charred version of Peruvian ChowFun?! The desserts were very good, but they all paled next to the Alfajores, crumbly delicate sugar wafers snuggling some of the best cajeta I have tasted. The drink I had with it was a Peruvian mystery fruit (I cant remember its' name but it was very good..I would definitely order it again..floating in it were diced apples to add a little astringency to play against the natural sweetness.)..Melanie's wine offering went perfectly with this meal... playing off the spices and herbs of the evenings repast..as usual at a Chowdown ...sharing food with Chowhound friends is the best! and I thank ChewChew and DeeGlaze for sharing this 'find' with us.. (and thanks to Melanie for 'twisting' their arms!)

              1 Reply
              1. re: ChowFun_derek

                I wasn't there when you ordered it, but your drink looked like chicha morada to me. It's made with purple corn.

                Here's more about the chancaca, the unrefined cane sugar that was the base for the dark brown, orange-scented, spiced syrup glazing our picarones.
                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chancaca

              2. Thank you so much for your report! I really wanted to come, but had another event I was hosting.

                I think I am going to take a friend there soon who used to live in Peru. I was wondering what the communication is like there. Can i communicate food allergies?

                1 Reply
                1. re: jsaimd

                  I don't think you'd have any communication problems with either of the two wait staff who took care of our table. If you're not sure, then ask to speak to the chef. He comes out to the front of the house routinely, it seems.

                2. We finally made it in. The first time we tried it was closed because they were catering. I have to say it was rather hopping for a Wed. night. I was limited on what I could try due to gluten, but my husband liked it. He said he would like to go back and try some different things. We shared with a table that had 2 Celiacs, one pescetarian, one fish-phobe and several on diets. So...we ended up with a mish-mash of dishes and not too much food. I think more of the small plates are OK for me, so I will be checking those out soon.

                  The service was really friendly. I did have to quiz a lot for allergies, but they worked really hard to understand. They were very apologetic about the time it took for food, although I didn't think it was that bad. They sent out free ice cream - as much as we would have wanted, but we only asked for two small scoops. It was really yummy.

                  My favorite was the Ceviche Pescado. The sauce was very good - my friend ate it like soup. We really liked it.

                  Thanks for the rec. Nice to have a new option close to home!

                  Here are pics for those interested:

                  http://breakingbreadwithdavies.blogsp...

                  1. Thanks to the reviews by all the CH'ers, I finally made it to this restaurant which is only a mile from my house. There were only two of us, so we couldn't try all the dishes that were discussed. We had the white fish ceviche, the Carapulcra and the "fried rice". All were excellent. I loved the limey flavor of the ceviche and the spice was a really complement. Jaime, the chef, said the spice was rocoto pepper, which is like a bell pepper but spicy. The other 2 dishes were very tasty, as well. We were happy and stuffed.

                    A diner at another table was saying that the restaurant should serve sangria. I chimed in and said that was a great idea. Next thing you know, the chef brought us both glasses of sangria! He had made it on the spot, using Malbec because a bottle was already open. It was very tasty.

                    We will definitely be going back!

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: goodeatsgal

                      We returned again this evening, and tasted two new items.
                      The first was "chicharron de pollo" - a wonderfully moist fried chicken, with a zesty dipping sauce that had a touch of star anise and cinnamon. The other was a "California cerviche" - mixed seafood with some avocado, mango, ginger and mint. Refreshing and delicious. Our third dish was "Aji de Gallina," which we've enjoyed before, and enjoyed again. The combination of crunchy, citrus-y and creamy dishes was a good one.

                      I'm so glad to have this place down the street.
                      Here's a link to their website: http://elhuecorestaurant.com/menu.html

                      Enjoy!

                      -----
                      El Hueco
                      593 Woodside Rd, Redwood City, CA 94061

                      1. re: DeeGlaze

                        DG: Thanks for the update - the chicharron de pollo sounds very tasty - was it cubes of chicken or actual pieces? Breast or thigh? Need that anatomical detail!

                        Great day for the California cebiche too...

                        1. re: RWCFoodie

                          They were de-boned thighs. Very yummy.