As fast-casual and the upper tier of restaurants hog consume all available natural resources, there’s one crucial dining stratum that’s going quietly extinct: inexpensive neighborhood spots. Less than hugely ambitious, drawing patrons from a relatively small geographical radius, and unrepresented by any P.R. professionals, they’re the workhorses of the ecosystem. And while no less a titan of food writing than Mimi Sheraton weighed in on this topic a few months ago — lamenting the closure of a 20-year-old favorite of hers with the almost comically understated name “Good” — for the most part, their disappearance doesn’t merit a lot of column inches.
Well, let us now praise the six-week-old Alma Cocina as exactly that type of restaurant and wish it our best. (I hope I haven’t cursed it by opening with an emphasis on death!) It opened on the lively southwest corner of Folsom and 24th streets that for a very long time housed La Parrilla, the unexciting burrito joint that felt like a rival chain to El Pollo Loco, but with only had one location. After taking down the illuminated menu boards and going to the reclaimed-wood consultant to zhuzh it up, Alma wisely left its predecessor’s grill intact, and the resulting Asian-inflected Peruvian restaurant built its menu around the fire.
There is much to admire here, especially the cleverness with which Alma conceals its lack of a full liquor license. (Confession: It took me until the second visit to realize it.) I would strongly recommend the $10 Mission Wood, made with a low-ABV “sake bourbon” and deepened with a bit of charred wood that imparts more nose than lapsang souchong-style campfire taste. Or do something 180 degrees off from that and go for the Spicy Passion ($9), which takes a risk and combines sake agave with rosemary, chili syrup, cream sherry, and passion fruit to great effect. It’s exactly as herbaceous as it needs to be to keep things from tilting into passion-ade.
But all of this is secondary to the kitchen’s side, a deft borrowing of various Asian techniques that sometimes come out of left field and only waded into the proverbial quicksand once. That would be the lomo saltado ($17), a traditional Peruvian dish if there ever was one, but here saddled with a generic Cantonese-takeout glaze coating on the rubbery beef. Not even stir-fried onions could rescue it from being a mundane meat-and-potatoes dish — and strangely enough, it was the single most expensive item I ordered on either of my two dinners and one lunch.
Barring that, and a $10 veggie empanada that’s fine but arguably doesn’t represent much in the way of value, the sky’s the limit. An unskippable chicken — available quartered ($8), halved ($14), or whole ($24) — inhales all the smoke emanating off that rotisserie, and the aji amarillo, a sauce made with lemon, garlic, olive oil, and a bit of Peruvian pepper, is even better matched than the chimichurri. Forgo the steamed vegetables as a side. Instead, get crispy-starchy yucca fries and arroz chaufa, an exalted version of fried rice prepared with eggs and just the right greasy mouthfeel.
Although it could have used more than a single octopus tentacle, it’s otherwise hard to quibble with the flavors of the pulpo a la brasa ($16), which contained pan-fried gnocchi and plenty of chimichurri in a combination that was too pretty and composed to be a stew but which had the same depth of long-simmering cassoulet. Even more beautiful was the chicharron de cerdo ($15), a slightly fatty Andean pork belly with a potato that had drowned in peppery uchucuta sauce, set off with plenty of pickled red onion. Meanwhile, a corn-studden saltado de quinoa ($16) was intensely flavored and cooked with tons of peas and mushrooms until it was a rival to the arroz chaufa.
The best overall category is undoubtedly the ceviches. There are three, and the $13 ceviche Nikkei is the best. It’s close to an ahi poke, cured with leche de tigre and served alongside sweet potato and hominy, effectively working every shade except for blue onto the plate in a high-octane dish. Less overly spicy, the darker and browner ceviche achifado ($13) resembles neither a ceviche nor a crudo, but tiger milk is still its center of gravity, tugged in a different direction by cucumber and tamarind.
Having long sniffed at them as glorified baby food, I have to admit I’m coming around to bananas. And it’s desserts like a cassava custard cake ($10) — which go heavy on the caramel and light on the starchiness — that are doing it for me. What else makes Alma special? It’s run by some of the friendliest, most doting people you’ll ever meet. On my second visit, I was recognized — not in my capacity as a media douchebag, but from having been in days earlier. Early online feedback appears strongly positive, but the pleasure the staff — not the owners, the employees — took in having a repeat customer was apparent and genuine. In a world of unctuous cynics, that gladdens the heart. Alma Cocina is better than La Parrilla and it’s better than good. Hopefully, it’s also better than Good, and it lasts a long time.
Alma Cocina, 2801 Folsom St., 415-341-0389 or almacocinasf.com