Café Secret has a sign perched above its Camino del Mar location, but if you approach the restaurant from the same side of the street, you can't really see it. This certainly adds to the “secret” charm of the place. I love the warm and intimate outdoor seating—there doesn't even appear to be indoor seats. Right away you feel like you're eating a special meal on somebody's patio. Warm candlelight, colorful textiles and smiling staff welcome you into the quiet little enclave.
Peruvian food is found only at a few places around San Diego—and there are a few exceptional examples in North County alone. Café Secret isn't at the top of the list—but it's darn close. Husband and wife team Bratzo and Daniella Basagoitia have clearly poured their hearts and creativity into their restaurant, and the menu has all sorts of fun treasures to mine.
Free snacks when I sit down at any restaurant always gets a hearty “thumbs up,” particularly when it's something unique and unexpected. Café Secret juices your appetite with a fun little Peruvian munchie called cancha. The shiny, toasted nubs of corn arrive in an overflowing bowl and look at first like a whole bunch of roasted peanuts. But when your teeth chomp into the slightly salty snack, it tastes more like very crunchy popcorn. It's a fun and satisfying treat that won't fill up your belly before dinner.
What Café Secret suffers from is the problem of comparison. With limited Peruvian joints around town, it's hard not to compare. Café Secret does food well, though falls short of exceptional. But the flavors of Peruvian cuisine are so rich and evocative, it's hard not to enjoy the experience here.
One of my favorite Peruvian dishes is Lomo, or Lomito Saltado. The dish is always delicious, packed with tomatoes, garlic, red onions, ginger, soy sauce and yuca. Café Secret's version is tender, tasty and worth ordering. Though yummy and flavorful, I've tasted palate-pleasing examples that almost made me weep with joy. Café Secret's lomito made me nod approvingly.
I liked the Aji de Gallina, a mildly spicy pile of shredded chicken mixed with a creamy, garlicky sauce. Though I enjoyed the flavor, the overall experience of the dish was a bit odd. There was only one olive. Based on the menu description, I expected olives to be a more significant part. It also comes with walnuts, to which I am allergic. I asked for them to be left off, but as often happens, that message somehow didn't reach the kitchen, so my dish arrived full of giant nuts. The server was very gracious and immediately rectified the situation by bringing me a new dish.
However, I just had this feeling, and I have no proof other than my Spidey-sense tingling, that all they did was pick out the remaining walnuts that I hadn't already fussed with, and slid the whole thing onto a new plate. I really, really hope I'm wrong about that, but the presentation the second time around was incomplete and seemed a bit rushed. They did bring me a complimentary dessert of light-as-air cookies with a sweet, creamy filling that went a long way toward making me less grouchy about my walnut encounter.
Though it might be hard not to make comparisons between the few Peruvian gems around town, Café Secret is a treasure worth discovering.