Eats and Drinks
Restaurant Review: Puerto 511
Tiny downtown Peruvian outlet a gold mine for delicate dishes and complex flavors
Published: January 15, 2014
When we came back from our feast at Puerto 511 (102 W. Clay St.,  244-8837, puerto511.com), we found that the pipes above our apartment had frozen and burst; two waterfalls flowed through the light fixtures in our bedroom ceiling. And still, more than 900 gallons of water—the super’s estimate—was not enough to wash away the incredible, indelible flavors of our meal. Hell, we almost just turned around and used the flood as an excuse to go back to Puerto 511 and move in.
Except that it is too small. Holding seven two-tops, Puerto 511 is what chef and owner Jose Victorio Alarcon describes as a micro-restaurant, where “one or two people work really hard and do everything.” Which meant, in this case, that Victorio Alarcon and one other guy took care of our party of eight (which took up more than half of the available seating). And yet, the service was as good as the food.
Located just off of Liberty Street (what Cathedral becomes further downtown) between Saratoga and Lexington, Puerto 511 is as nondescript as possible from the outside, with barely an open sign visible from the sidewalk. But unlike many of the other great ethnic restaurants in the vicinity—Mekong Delta, Zhongshan, Tabor—Puerto doesn’t have an old school, old-world feel at all. Instead, its closest relative is perhaps the hip Bottega or arty Canteen, both up in Station North.
Inside, the small space is minimally, if elegantly, appointed, with crisp white walls and black chairs and tables. In the center of each table is a small purple flower in a bowl of water. Fans spin lazily overhead and the only real decorations are jars of peppers and corn on top of the counter separating the kitchen—into which proprieters invite customers to look—from the dining room.
You start the meal with super-thin house-made plantain chips—the best we’ve ever had—and a dipping sauce not unlike mint chutney with a little more cream. We couldn’t help but empty the bowl while we waited for our appetizers. The chupe de camarones ($10) could hardly be called an appetizer. A hearty Peruvian stew with prawns, fresh cheese, potatoes, a fried egg, and a slice of rustic bread in it, it could easily be a meal—a perfect lunch on these cold-ass days. The ceviche clasico ($13), fresh, raw fish in “leche de tigre”—lime juice, red onion, and cilantro—was out of this world. The bold citrus flavor, combined with the freshness of the fish, will make you forget the name of your favorite sushi joint. We also got the ceviche mixto ($15), the same thing except that in addition to fish, it featured calamari, octopus, shrimp, and habanero peppers. Both are served with glazed sweet potatoes, Andean corn (like posole), and crunchy corn kernels. Amazing.
The anticucho de corazon ($9), or skewered veal hearts marinated in a sauce made wth aji panca (a Peruvian pepper), were surprisingly crisp of texture, not at all like liver or other squishier organs. The iron-ish flavor of the heart mixed gorgeously with the marinade and the grill’s flavor for a big barbecue effect. The causa sampler ($9) didn’t have quite the same “holy shit!” effect as the ceviche or the heart, but the balls of Peruvian potato in a yellow pepper sauce topped with salmon, shrimp, and octopus would be the star of many other restaurants’ menus.
On one of his trips by our table, Victorio Alarcon said that 511 is the country code he uses to call home in Peru and that his own hometown was a port like Baltimore, and so he wanted to focus on having seafood dishes. And he does the seafood right. But a number of the entrees also feature organic produce and other high-quality ingredients that show an attention to detail, which also comes across in the limited scope of the menu, which features only six entrees. The benefit of that is that we were able to try them all. The only real bummer was the one dish, the tallarin saltado ($15), that we requested vegetarian: Without the rib-eye, the stir-fry noodles were just like an average Chinese dish. But the lomo saltado ($16), Peruvian stir-fry with beef, onions, and french fries, was much better, capturing that strange combination of Chinese, American, and even Canadian (poutine) touches that Peruvian saltado should have. And the chaufa de mariscos ($16)—wok-fried rice with seafood and vegetables—also brought the best of those Chinese-y flavors one can find in Peruvian dishes while also adding the fresh zest of the seafood. The New Zealand lamb chops ($15) would be at home on the small plate menu of any foodie-hipster haven, but, while they were delicious, they might not have held up so well as an entree by themselves. In general, we did well by eating family-style because all of the flavors complemented each other so well and nothing became overwhelming or dull in an overabundance.
Next time we go back without a large group (which will be doing often), we will order the arroz con mariscos, or Peruvian paella ($17), which was suffused with the same, almost-electric lightness of the citrus in the ceviche (think of using a lemon to power a battery), with a nice white-wine kick; it is an extraordinary dish that, like an extraordinary person, will take many visits to come to know.
The other item we will be ordering again soon is the surprising Huancaina spaghetti ($17), which looks like spaghetti in a Velveeta sauce but actually has an extremely complex and not too rich flavor, with a yellow-pepper cream mixed with cheddar and Parmesan cheese and a lomito sauce. The dish is chock-full of rib-eye steak, shrimp, mushrooms, and scallions, and is not the kind of thing you’re likely to find elsewhere. The entire experience of Puerto 511 is unique; like a few other chef/restaurateurs in town, Victorio Alarcon seems more like an artist than a businessman. But we can’t think of anywhere else with the bright diversity of flavors.
We’re not usually fans of dessert, but even we liked the quinoa flan ($5) and the Peruvian toast ($5)—otherwise known as French toast—with manjar blanco (dulche de leche) and ice cream.
Puerto 511 is so small that we almost want to keep it a secret, wondering if, once people discover it, we will ever get a table again. But it is too good to hide. And it is good enough that, like the title of the novel by Daniel Alarcon, the Peruvian-American novelist who shares the chef’s name, we would be willing to say “At Night We Walk in Circles” around Puerto 511 waiting to eat. It is that good.
Puerto 511 is open Monday 5-9 p.m., Tuesday to Thursday 1-9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 1-10 p.m., and Sunday 1-8 p.m. For a gallery of photos from the restaurant, go to citypaper.com/puerto511.
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