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.
593 Woodside Rd, Redwood City, CA 94061