Having just opened a new restaurant six months ago, it wasn’t like Chef Carlos Altamirano was looking to open another one right now.
But sometimes, things just fall into your lap.
That was the case in Lafayette, a city in which it’s nearly impossible to find a space, unless another one closes – that is now known as Barranco Cocina Peruana.
On Mt. Diablo Blvd, it’s right downtown, and for commuters, it’s the first restaurant you come upon when exiting the BART station; perfect for a post-work cocktail and some small plates with friends.
“We had wanted to do something in Lafayette for a long time now,” agreed Shu Dai Altamirano, his wife and business partner, “but couldn’t find anything.”
“The landlord here loves Parada and wanted us to do something here,” said Carlos Altamirano, referring to his Walnut Creek restaurant, now two years old.
When the space vacated, the landlord invited Altamirano to come see it.
“We checked it out,” he said, and that was that. Barranco opened Friday, September 15.
Barranco is named after one of Lima, Peru’s beach districts, where seafood is abundant, and it is the seventh Bay Area restaurant owned by the Peruvian-born chef and his wife.
Paradita, in Emeryville, was the latest to open. Others include Mochica and Piqueos in San Francisco, La Costanera in Montara which had a Michelin star two years running, and the food truck and catering service Sanguchon.
Clearly opening a new place is no big deal for the chef by now; that was evident at a media preview on Wednesday September 13, where tastes of numerous dishes were on offer, and nearly every bite was delicious.
Lafayette extended a warm welcome, by a symbolic ribbon cutting ceremony last night with the mayor and others from the Chamber of Commerce in attendance.
Fans of Altamirano’s other restaurants will recognize some dishes from his other places, but that’s not at all a bad thing.
Given that Peruvian cuisine is not as well-known as some others, what’s on the menu?
Peruvian cuisine is unique because there are so many outside influences as Asians and Europeans settled there. It is also known for some distinctly Peruvian peppers, which make their way into sauces; rocoto and aji Amarillo are two of the most well-known.
Altamirano has a farm in Half Moon Bay where rocoto peppers are cultivated specifically for his restaurants, since they are not so easy to obtain otherwise.
Given that Barranco is billing itself primarily as a seafood restaurant, there is plenty of it, but carnivores and vegetarians will find plenty to enjoy as well.
The cebiche section has four different types; a fish of the day, an ahi tuna, a mixed seafood and a vegetable version. We tried the fish of the day, presented in a shot glass, and it was wonderfully acidic and refreshing.
Causa is one of the most well-known Peruvian dishes, a kind of potato terrine lightly spiced with aji Amarillo, a fruit-foward Latin American chile, which turns the potatoes bright yellow. At Barranco it’s called causita and can be had stuffed with crab, tuna or octopus. The crab and potato made for a delicate combination.
The anticuchos or skewers section offers savory bites of beef heart, chicken, pork belly or Japanese eggplant. Deceptively simple but so delicious.
There are also chicharrones of different types: chicken, calamari, oyster and wild mushroom.
The bocaditos or “snacks” section is varied, and it is from here that we had most of our tastes of the evening. Especially noteworthy were the empanadas; wonderfully flaky dough, filled with a savory beef filling and a slight dust of powdered sugar.
We also especially loved the wontons stuffed with Oaxacan cheese, with a guacamole dipping sauce.
The entrée section includes two types of Peruvian seafood paella, one with squid ink; chicken in aji Amarillo curry sauce; several fish dishes and scallops with lamb and steak for those wanting red meat, and a quinoa dish as a vegetarian option.
Barranco also has a full bar, with Pisco, the Peruvian brandy-like spirit playing a prominent role. While the Pisco sour is always a favorite, there are plenty of other mixed cocktails, with all syrups and infusions made in-house. The sangria had strawberries and blueberries floating in it.
Altamirano’s story from dishwasher to empire-builder is a true immigrant success story. He began by helping out in his mother’s kitchen in Peru, feeding truck drivers passing through town. In San Francisco, he worked his way up from dishwasher to chef, to now, owning seven restaurants.
As to whether he is done building his empire, Altamirano said one or two more restaurants would suit him just fine, but he’s not putting too much thought into it; the opportunities keep coming to him.
“If I keep getting more opportunities, I’ll keep doing it,” he said.
“I love what I do.”
Barranco Cocina Peruana
3596 Mt. Diablo Boulevard, Lafayette [Map]
Hours: Open daily for lunch from 11am-3pm; for dinner Sun, Tue-Thu from 3pm-9pm; Fri and Sat from 3pm-10:30pm. Closed Monday for dinner.
Price Range: $$ entrees between $19 and $38, with most in the $20 to $30 range.