Q'ero Restaurant564 South Coast Hwy.Encinitas760-753-9050
The one New Year's resolution that I plan to make good on is to travel more often, wherever and whenever the opportunity presents itself. I regret all the trips not taken this year, which equals so many meals not eaten. Among the almost-traveled destinations was South America, but I've pledged to do my best to make it there or somewhere else far and fantastic in '09. In the meantime, a long drive up the coast to Encinitas and the South American-inspired Q'ero Restaurant will have to do.
I was on my way to meet a friend, with whom I've shared some of my best travels and eating experiences. We no longer live in the same city, but we always get together during the holidays to celebrate over food. Our dinner reservation at Q'ero was on the early side, but the small, colorfully decorated restaurant was already full when I arrived. Among the diners already seated at one of the 10 or so tables were two well-known local farmers, who assured me that I was in for a good meal.
When my dinner dates arrived, a friend offered to share two special bottles of wine with our group, but once we learned of Q'ero's $18 corkage fee, we decided to just open one and choose our next bottle from the restaurant's wine list of South American varietals.
Maybe it's from growing up on a diet of dumplings, but I'm always drawn to different cultures' renditions of stuffed and baked or fried pastries. We began with empanaditas—crumbly tender dough folded around a filling of lentils, sweet potatoes and spinach—and a baked-potato-sized papa rellena, a golden-crusted mashed potato shell surrounding picadillo (a ground-beef mixture made deliciously savory with sliced olives and spices), served with a side of quick-pickled onions. Another great appetizer for sharing is the platter of green plantain curls and cassava root, fried crisp, with a house-made Peruvian hot-pepper sauce for dipping.
'Tis the season for hearty vegetables, so a warm plate of roasted sweet potatoes, sautéed Swiss chard and mushrooms dressed with sage butter was the ideal winter salad. The wine guy at our table chose our next bottle, a French grape called Carmenère that's now primarily grown in Chile. It was super with our food, like a softer, gentler Cabernet Sauvignon. For our mains, a friend and I couldn't decide between two dishes so we ordered one of each to split. I chose the slow-roasted lamb shank, seasoned with cumin and cilantro. The meat was soft, almost too soft, as if all the moisture had cooked out and leeched into the sauce, which collected in a watery pool on the plate and saturated the accompanying rice; it was the one blight in an otherwise enjoyable dinner. Our other entrée, beef short ribs braised in a fermented corn beer called chicha de jora, was a step up but benefited from a sprinkling of salt. We both agreed that our other friends had chosen better: The tasty bacon-wrapped scallop special was delicate and perfectly cooked, and Q'ero's version of lomo saltado, a Peruvian staple with Asian influences, was very well-seasoned. Here, an entire flat-iron steak is served instead of the usual thin strips of meat, but it's topped with the traditional sauté of onion and tomato and finished with a tangy vinegar hot-pepper sauce.
I can never resist a tres leches cake, and it's done irresistibly here. The tall square of sponge cake, drenched in various milks, is neither too soggy nor excessively sweet. It's capped with a little fresh whipped cream and seasonal fruit—in this instance, persimmon and pomegranate. A few truffles, made by local Guanni Chocolates using Peruvian ingredients, would also be a fitting end for this South America SoCal meal.