There are plenty of good restaurants and there are a smaller number of great restaurants, but only a few manage to combine exceptional food with a sprinkling of something magical. Casa del Q'ero (815 Birmingham Drive) in Cardiff is one of the few.
Q'ero Restaurant, its sister restaurant up the road in Encinitas, is a tiny little jewel box of color and spice serving amazing Peruvian fare to those who can manage to get a table. It's popular for good reason. And with the just-as-beautiful second location, more of us will be able to taste what's so special about this kitchen.
The second location doesn't have quite the same fancy real estate as the original Pacific Coast Highway spot (it's tucked in the back of a Chevron parking lot, overlooking the freeway), but that doesn't matter once you're seated under the brightly painted ceiling.
Now is the season of warm spices and nothing starts off an autumn feast at Casa del Q'ero better than a cup of chicha morada. This traditional Peruvian drink is made from purple corn and can be served icy cold or hot like tea. I opted for a cold glass of the vibrant punch. The color is beyond gorgeous, a bloody violet like nothing you've seen in a drink. Cinnamon and clove punch up the sweetness and apple chunks offer an occasional crunchy treat.
When it comes to eating, I've yet to find an item on either restaurant's menu that disappoints. The traditional lomo saltado (tender beef) simmered in a rich sauce of tomatoes, peppers and spices is one of my last-day-on-earth meals. I can't get enough of it. But don't miss out on the seafood offerings.
Ceviche is the national dish of Peru and there are a multitude of variations. I dug into the "Don Cucho," a tangle of just barely "cooked" fish and onions served over buttery leaves of lettuce. The fish is meltingly tender, broken down by its citrus bath, with a slightly underdone texture that manages to avoid being rubbery. Puckery citrus juices dominate, bracing and wonderful, with paper-thin red onions giving a warm and grounding contrast. A side of sweet, mashed yuca soaks up the juices and shatteringly crunchy canchita (fried corn kernels) make for a delightful garnish.
Although it's a versatile and perfectly lovely super food, I don't get too excited about quinoa. But in the hands of Casa del Q'ero, I could get obsessed. The autumn quinoa salad showcases the Peruvian staple, a mainstay long before we became obsessed with its healthful benefits. The autumn salad takes the grain and tosses it with roasted squash and apples, delicately cooked spinach and crispy bits of fried sage. Everything is dressed with an herbed brown butter making a dish that tastes both healthy and decadent. A sprinkling of pomegranate seeds not only polka dots the dish with bright color, it gives each bite of warm, cooked grains a punchy pop of bright juice. Casa del Q'ero excels at these contrasts.
Some dining experiences stay with you. Casa del Q'ero's warm, evocative flavors magically linger in your memory.