It’s the pigment of the ají amarillo chili pepper that brightens the huancaína sauce to such a vivid yellow. If it’s not the signature color of Peruvian cuisine in general, it certainly gives a certain allure to this vibrant creamy sauce served on many of the dishes at Paradita Eatery. Newly opened in a prime location at the Emeryville Public Market, Paradita is the most recent restaurant owned and operated by Chef Carlos Altamirano and his wife Shu Dai.
If you’ve eaten at one of their other restaurants — the Parada Kitchen in Walnut Creek, Mochica and Piqueos in San Francisco and La Costanera in Half Moon Bay — Parada is Paradita’s closest relative, menu-wise. Unlike Mochica, ceviche is not on Paradita’s menu. Instead, Altamirano’s new fast-casual restaurant smartly focuses on exquisitely rendered stews and roast chicken. The food is not entirely unfriendly to vegetarians but it’s really a haven for carnivores.
You can try beef, chicken or lamb in a variety of preparations. There are bowls, which are served with basmati rice and roasted vegetables and arrive in bento-like paper boxes, as well as salads, skewers and sandwiches. If you’re wanting to try Peruvian sauces in their purest state, start with the bowls. The seco de cordero ($15.50) is the tenderest lamb shoulder slow-braised in a cilantro and beer sauce. The cilantro is cooked down to a deep, dark green that reminded me of a Persian dish I grew up eating: ghormeh sabzi. The two dishes couldn’t be farther apart in flavor profiles, but they share a richness that consistently rewards the palate after every bite.
In terms of presentation, any dish would suffer in comparison with the aji de gallina ($12.75). The eyes just open that much wider when this sunniest of chicken stews arrives at the table. The huancaína sauce, which is made with feta and saltine crackers, was delicate, smooth and hearty. In retrospect, the texture of the sauce was reminiscent of a mild Thai yellow curry. The dish is served with potatoes, a Botija olive, a boiled egg, and scoops of rice topped with a cancha (Peruvian corn) salad. The stewed chicken, though, was what raised the bar of this dish. In terms of preparation and taste, the white meat was beyond succulent.
And then there’s the pollo a la brasa (half $13.50; whole $23.50), or Peruvian rotisserie chicken. Paradita roasts and crisps its chicken skin until it’s red, further emboldened by Peruvian spices. You can dip the chicken in one of two sauces, the huancaína or a chimichurri (a garlicky herb sauce), but it doesn’t need either. It’s the kind of roast chicken you wish you could duplicate in a home oven. French fries come with the order too, but skip them, or ask for an upgrade to “Yucca” fries ($5).
If you’ve never experienced yuca’s flavor before, the first bite of this root vegetable can be off-putting. There’s a disconnect between the optic nerve and your taste buds. The eyes are registering “french fry” while your tongue is processing yuca, essentially, an undiluted form of starch. Once the initial shock is over though, the fries, which are lightly crispy on the outside, start to taste like tangy mashed potatoes formed in the shape of a steak cut fry.
Two stews are sufficient enough for a shared meal between friends or couples, but the empanadas looked too good to pass up. Instead of deep-frying them, Paradita bakes its empanadas. The crust surrounding the beef empanada ($6.25) absorbed the spices and the juices of the meat until it was nearly orange inside. A light dusting of powdered sugar slightly sweetened the beef. Although Paradita sell alfajores (dulce de leche-filled butter cookies) too, that empanada was the only dessert we needed.
Located to the right of the Public Market’s main entrance, Paradita Eatery has set up tables both inside and outside the hall. Despite ideal weather for al fresco dining, several patrons lined the bar inside, chatting with their neighbors while sipping pisco sours (two types, both $9) or sangria ($8). The atmosphere may be casual — meals can be quickly packed to go — but Chef Altamirano’s approach is not. He’s brought clarity and refinement to an impressively executed, and instantly approachable, compact list of Peruvian recipes.