Carlos Altamirano’s Peruvian food concept has grown so quickly he has to stop and think before he’s able to list all his establishments. The owner of Mochica, on the corner of Connecticut and 18th streets, opened a new restaurant in Emeryville in April, and has another slated this summer in Lafayette. Counting Piqueos in Bernal Heights and restaurants in Walnut Creek and Montara, that brings Altamirano’s total to seven, if you include roving Sanguchon food trucks.
He likens himself as an ambassador of Peruvian food. “I love opening restaurants. It makes me feel like I am doing something good,” he said.
Mochica was the first. A chef who’d made his way up the San Francisco food chain, Alatamirano opened the restaurant in 2004 on Harrison Street. When it outgrew those digs, he relocated to Potrero Hill, taking over the space Rocketfish Sushi vacated. He expanded the windows, unblocked the ceiling skylight, and opened the kitchen to make it visible to patrons. He went with wooden paneling and matching tables because he felt that decor was friendly. “I like to keep it rustic. I don’t like things too elegant.”
Alatamirano described his cuisine as “soul food;” “comiea criolla,” like the way Creole is in New Orleans. Peruvian food, he explained, is influenced by a variety of cultures that touched that country. There are traditional bowls and anticuchos, a popular street vendor food in Peru. The spices are often akin to what one would expect of Latin America. However, there are elements of Chinese, Japanese and African tastes, as well as touches of French and Italian.
Mochico’s Ceviche Chino dish features Ahi Tuna that comes with wantons, soy sauce and hoisin sauce. Loma Saltado is beef stir fried on a wok with fried egg. The French Fries that come with it, along with the spices, reflect European and South American elements. Occasionally a Japanese-influenced dish, Tiradito, will appear on the menu, featuring thinly sliced tuna snapper on a bed of Peruvian chile. The menu is different for each restaurant, but the specialty spices for all come from rocoto peppers, grown on Alatamirano’s own farm in Pescadero.
Altamirano, who hails from Lima, developed his taste buds through his mother’s cooking. “It was not quite a restaurant, but she had a small home and people would come to eat,” he said. His mother, who now lives in San Diego, often cooked for eight to ten visitors a night.
At age 20, Altimirano told his mom he wanted to move to the United States and work in a restaurant. Over the next 14 years, he toiled at several in San Francisco, starting as a cook, moving his way to head chef. He was mentored by Reed Hearon, who was a cooking celebrity in the 1990s. Hearon, who appeared on Julia Child’s Lessons with Master Chefs, opened several popular eateries, including LuLu on Folsom Street and Rose Pistola in North Beach.
“In order to move up he had to see you have a talent,” recalled Altamirano. “He pushed me to work my way up.”
All his restaurants have different names and menus. Mochica is called after Moche civilization, a forerunner of the Incas which flourished on Peru’s northeast coast in the first century, known for its skilled artisans.
“It was fascinating what they do because whatever they do, they do with love,” he said. “That kind of feeling I wanted to put into the restaurant.”