Its prime elements are superb Pacific seafood plucked from the cold Humboldt Current; indigenous Andean potatoes and corn; and Chinese influences stemming from a wave of nineteenth-century immigration.
Thanks to a wave of Peruvian immigration to New Jersey in the early 1980s, this lively and distinctive cuisine has become readily available in Kearny, Passaic, and Paterson. One of the best Peruvian restaurants, Oh! Calamares, stands directly across Kearny Avenue from the site of Satriale’s Pork Store—Tony Soprano’s “office.” It serves authentic Peruvian food in an atmosphere that, unlike Tony’s back room, welcomes outsiders and delights in answering their questions.
Owner William Placencia named Oh! Calamares after his favorite childhood restaurant in Lima (which, however, he says was not named for the risque 1960s off-Broadway hit, Oh! Calcutta.) The flesh that Placencia’s restaurant celebrates is that which comes from the sea. And for the most part, it does so with flair and finesse.
It’s hard to resist the big, roasted, salted Andean corn kernels that are served instead of bread, but you won’t have to wait long for your order of seviche, a dish invented in Peru and neighboring Ecuador. Oh! Calamares’s face-slappingly fresh versions are made to order of lightly poached seafood fleetingly marinated in lime juice. The multi-textured mixto seviche combines calamari, shrimp, octopus, and grouper alongside slices of camote, or sweet potato. It’s a knockout.
The menu focuses on carefully made, intensely flavored Limeño, or Lima-style, seafood dishes from Peru’s cosmopolitan capital. Calories you save with the seviche can be spent on luscious jalea, a mountain of lightly battered, flash-fried shellfish topped with sliced red onion, chopped tomatoes, cilantro, lime juice, and salt. It easily feeds four as an appetizer and two as an entrée. The platter comes with two excellent condiments: a cumin-flavored green sauce called aji and a mayonnaise rosy with Peruvian pepper.
Other seafood dishes proved less enchanting. The underseasoned tomato base of a mixed-seafood parihuela stew looked and tasted cornstarch-thickened, and picante de mariscos, a platter of steamed shellfish, was dulled by a bland cream sauce that failed to deliver its advertised aji kick.
Restaurants figure prominently in Placencia’s past. His mother owned a Lima dining spot where the young man learned to cook while training as a jewelry designer. Upon emigrating to New Jersey in 1983 with his wife, Ana, and infant son, Juan, he opened San Andres in Union City to feed Jersey’s new wave of Peruvian émigrés. Oh! Calamares opened in North Bergen in 1992 and moved to its current perch across from Satriale’s in 2001.
In a foodie variation of the American dream, Juan graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and cooked at Gramercy Tavern and Jean-Georges in Manhattan. Now 26, he works part-time at Greenwich Village’s Gotham while sharing Oh! Calamares chef duties with his father. Jersey-born brother Jonathan, 22, manages the restaurant alongside Ana.
A homey feeling permeates the place. Diners are welcomed by Ana or Jonathan and led past the entry-hall bar into a bi-level, 62-seat dining room handsome with dark wood tables and bright sponge-painted walls decorated with Quechua Indian masks and dolls. No less genuinely Peruvian, says Jonathan, are the room’s several large TV screens loudly broadcasting soccer games or song-and-dance concerts. Dining here on a big game night is akin to a stadium experience, albeit with comfier seats and better eats.
If, like me, in Chinese restaurants you keep ordering fried rice in hopeful pursuit of the Cantonese classic, Oh! Calamares’ chaufa fried rice will reward your dedication. The protein (chicken, beef, seafood, or a combo) is dusted with aji powder, stir-fried with white rice, scallions, garlic, ginger, and onions, and finished with tangy rice-wine vinegar and Japanese mushroom soy sauce. The spaghetti dish called tallarin, though prepared in similar fashion, is not as piquant or compelling.
The menu offers a rotation of braised meats, such as duck, veal, and rabbit, served with potatoes or rice and beans. These dishes appear at first glance bistro-influenced but are, I’m assured, entirely Peruvian. I was relieved that the national specialty, spit-roasted cuy, was unavailable on my visits. Cuy is a type of guinea pig—wilder, bigger, and less cuddly than the pet variety, but still a rodent. With such delicious seviche, jalea, and chaufa on offer, I guiltlessly recused myself from this culinary adventure.
I’m already planning my next visit to Oh! Calamares. My meal will include a pitcher of chicha morada, Peru’s non-alcoholic purple corn punch, made in the kitchen with pineapple, vanilla, and cinnamon. (It would make a brilliant mixer for white rum, which can be ordered at the bar. Mix it in yourself.)
I’ll look forward to house-made desserts like the clove-scented bread pudding, the rich flan, and the alluring alfajores. These are sugar-dusted, caramel-filled shortbread cookies baked by the Placencias’ Aunt Magdalena in East Orange. That’s as far as outsourcing goes at this proudly traditional family restaurant.