The sauce king
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When Carlos Altamirano opened his first restaurant, Mochica, on a drab block of Harrison Street in SoMa more than four years ago, I thought: well, Peruvian, that's interesting, but how good could it be if he had to put it there? Then I went and found out how good it could be: way good, extraordinary, probably the best Peruvian food in the city. Few pleasures are as exquisite as that of finding one's expectations exceeded.
And yet, in unlooked-for success, danger can lurk, too. If your first restaurant turns out to be marvelous, people will expect your other restaurants to be marvelous, maybe even more marvelous. The word, from two summers ago, that Altamirano would be taking over the original Moki's space in Bernal Heights to open a Mochica sibling wasn't surprising, but it did lead me to suppose that the new place would be at least as good as the older one and, at the same time, wonder if and how it could be. Would it be disappointing if Piqueo's, the new restaurant, were only as good as Mochica, not better?
One way out of this gilded conundrum might be to serve a slightly different sort of food at each locale. Altamirano describes the menu at Piqueo's as "contemporary" Peruvian cuisine "traditional" Peruvian, "with a California twist." (Mochica, incidentally, serves "fusion Peruvian cuisine," according to the Web site.) The description is fair enough in that vague, diplomats-having-frank-discussions way, but it does not begin to capture the wonder of the sauces, which, in their variety, sophistication, and vividness, are so good we actually requested glasses to drink them from, once we'd run out of sopping and soaking material. If you associate sauces with a certain sort of snooty French cooking, you will find revelation at Piqueo's.
The menu card itself is an unwieldy artifact. It's oversized it could pass as a modestly shrunken reproduction of the Declaration of Independence and like that worthy document it's filled with text, in small, difficult-to-read lettering. One evening we had to whip out our Peepers (those wallet-size magnifying glasses, so no, it's not what you think) to be able to read the menu. Rarely do you see so many choices except at Chinese restaurants, and when a kitchen must turn out such a broad range of dishes, you wonder if it isn't trying to spread too little butter over too much bread.
But you don't get bread at Piqueo's: You get little dishes of crispy, spicy chickpeas, tossed with scallion mince and some mild white vinegar. They're no good for sauce reclamation, but they are addictive. You empty the dish and another soon appears, and by the time you've emptied that, you are presented with a platter of seviche, maybe the mixto version ($17), an embarrassment of peeled shrimp, sea scallops, mussels, yam chunks, kernels of Peruvian corn, and a few slivers of fresh ginger bathing in a glow-in-the-dark sauce of lime juice and two kinds of chili pepper, rocoto and aji limo. The sauce was almost like a distillate of V-8 juice, and when the seafood was gone, we poured the remnant into a cordial glass and made a small toast to the next course.
After such puckering heat, a bit of aromatic sweetness is indicated. How about a salad of quinoa ($9) the grain of the Inca perfumed with mint? I was expecting something like couscous, but the salad was a real salad: a bowlful of mixed greens, with the cooked quinoa scattered like cheese crumblings over the lettuces and a lively but well-mannered supporting cast of halved black olives, red bell pepper julienne, and more Peruvian corn kernels tossed into the mix. Vinaigrette: lush and balsamicky, a hint of caramel sweetness.
As familiar as Peruvian corn (a.k.a. cancha) may have become in recent years, at least to those who haunt Peruvian restaurants, its appearances have remained confined (in my experience) to off-the-cob bit parts. But Piqueo's offers cancha steamed on skewered cobs ($9) in a fabulous, turmeric-yellow aji sauce. The corn itself was a little bland (though it doesn't stick in your teeth the way the ordinary kind can), but the sauce was so good that we pleaded for, and were brought, a plate of toasted baguette rounds to clean it up with.
Bread recurred (in a kind of late-inning rally) as part of a fried-smelt sandwich ($9) enlivened by sprigs of fresh cilantro. Smelt is a fresh-water fish not often seen in restaurants around here I associate it with the Great Lakes and early-spring fishing expeditions by night along Chicago's lakefront but there is a variety native to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, so it's not necessarily an exotic delicacy.
Also not exotic delicacies, but delicious all the same, are calamari tubes ($19), closed off at one end like pastry piping bags, filled with chorizo, and grilled. The tubes (which look like elongated dreidels) are plated with broad, flat white beans, a jumble of watercress, and yet another wondrous sauce, this one called chupe.
If there is a slight letdown, it has to do with the dessert menu. Many of the usual suspects can be found here, from alfajores (the little cookies) to suspiro to passion-fruit mousse. After some squabbling ("Gentlemen, draw your Peepers"), we settled on the chocolate cake ($10) with ice cream. The ice cream, made with lucuña, a tropical fruit native to Peru, was a pretty orange-pink color but disappointingly granular, which suggested it had melted and been refrozen. The cake, on the other hand, a disk held within a rim of crushed nuts, was outstanding: a mousse cake, smooth and dense as night. No sauce needed.
Daily, 5:3010:30 p.m.
830 Cortland, SF
Beer and wine