Restaurant Review

Peak Pan-Latin Party: Somos in North Arlington Reviewed

At his new restaurant, chef Juan Placencia draws freely from Central and South America to delightful effect.

The cachapa, a humble Venezuelan pancake, becomes the chassis for one of chef Juan Placencia’s joyrides combining Latin American flavors. Photo by James Worrell

If you know what a cachapa is, it’s hard to suppress a giggle when the server sets one in front of you at Somos in North Arlington. In its native Venezuela, a cachapa is a simple pancake, fluffy and made of corn. At Somos, chef/owner Juan Placencia turns it into a party on a plate. Placencia, a native of Peru, makes his from a mixture of wheat and corn flours. Each $10 order consists of one fluffy cachapa smeared with piquant Jersey tomato jam, splashed with a blizzard of Mexican cotija cheese, and crowned with a tangle of grilled leeks and mushrooms for an umami finish. 

Beyond being swooningly delicious, the cachapa exemplifies the inclusiveness inherent in the name Somos, which means, “We are.” As Placencia puts it, “Latin American cultures and cuisines have come together here in New Jersey. We’re here to celebrate them.”

Moqueca, a traditional fish stew from Brazil, is customized by chef de cuisine Roberto Carnero with sea bass, cauliflower and yucca purée. Photo by James Worrell

Chef de cuisine Roberto Carnero also crosses borders in his take on moqueca, Brazil’s rich fish stew. A $25 entrée served in a steel casserole, it combines nearly half a pound of crisp-skinned black bass with yucca purée, several kinds of peppers, Peruvian chilies and touches of tomato, lime, coconut milk and palm oil. Velvety roasted cauliflower in the casserole takes the place of rice and beans, traditionally served on the side. Like the cachapa, the multifaceted moqueca changes its tune depending on how you load your spoon.

Placencia, 36, is himself a product of different culinary cultures. His family emigrated from Lima to Union City when he was two. He says he “more or less grew up” in the Peruvian restaurants run by his mother, Ana, and his chef father, Pablo. These eventually culminated in San Andres, which opened in Union City in 1989, and Oh! Calamares, which debuted in North Bergen in 1996 before moving to Kearny in 2001. In cooking, Placencia says, “my dad has been my strongest influence. He taught me everything about real Peruvian cuisine.” 

Placencia found an entirely different mentor in Alsatian chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. While studying at the CIA, Placencia interned at Michelin-starred Jean-Georges in Manhattan. “Jean-Georges was wildly inventive, yet very practical,” he says. “I saw how he sustained the excitement of a restaurant and made it thrive.” 

After earning his CIA degree in 2002, Placencia worked in Manhattan at Eleven Madison Park, Gotham Bar and Grill, Del Posto and Gramercy Tavern before opening his first restaurant, Costanera, an upscale Peruvian eatery, in Montclair in 2010. Carnero, a Costanera alum, was, like Placencia, born in Peru and raised in Hudson County. These days, Placencia spends most nights at Somos in the kitchen or at the Spanish-tiled atrium bar. 

Patrons gather at the centrally located bar, the bubbling social hub of the restaurant. Photo by James Worrell

Unlike Costanera, Somos has a liquor license, and its cocktail program, overseen by Lauren Terzian, is just as piquant as its food. At $11, the cocktails are moderately priced but extravagantly conceived and flirtatiously titled—like the For a Good Time Call, which combines vanilla-infused pisco with passion-fruit purée, lemon-sugarcane syrup, a spritz of cava and a float of edible glitter.

Somos, which opened in late 2018, offers generous pleasures at moderate prices. At dinner, toothsome fried empanadas cost just $6 for two. I liked the beef, the filling braised with a Cuban sofrito. (Empanadas also come in chicken mole or vegetable.) Chicken wings, a snack-sized riff on Peruvian rotisserie chicken, are roasted, then fried and given either a sticky-sweet barbecue sauce or a more rousing and sophisticated dry spice rub comprising four types of dried chili, sugar, sea salt, cumin, and garlic powder made in-house from fresh garlic. 

Tuna ceviche, the Desmond cocktail (mezcal, Aperol, lime, honey-ginger syrup), shrimp ceviche. Photo by James Worrell

Somos offers three ceviches, marinated raw fish crudos that originated in coastal Peru. All are worth ordering. (Seafood—“only sustainable species,” Placencia notes—is delivered daily.) Luscious ahi tuna ceviche ($14) is marinated in coconut milk, rocoto pepper and lime juice. It comes with long, crackly strips of fried plantains, which serve as scoops. There’s also marinated black bass with tomatillos, avocado, cilantro and crispy tortillas, and a captivating shrimp ceviche fleshed out with passion fruit, strips of gala apple, radish and crispy quinoa.

In frutos del mar spaghetti ($23), shrimp, scallops, octopus, mussels and cod are cooked separately so that each achieves perfect texture when it is mixed with the house-made pasta. The broth-like tomato and tomatillo sauce is lively, and the dish even delivers a guessing game: Are those black sesame seeds on top? No, they’re toasted quinoa grains, nutty and giddily crunchy. Asado de res pappardelle ($18) features wider noodles in a homey sauce of tomato, carrot, red wine, roasted onion, garlic and sweetish Peruvian aji panca pepper. The menu humbly describes this main course as “Peruvian beef pot roast,” but its luxuriously supple and savory meat is, in fact, braised beef cheeks. The churrasco skirt steak platter ($25) is South American comfort food. The meat is unaged, but tasty and tender from an onion-and-tomato marinade. A fried egg crowns the accompanying tacu-tacu, a hash of black beans and rice sautéed with garlic and aji amarillo peppers.

Somos’s flan is topped with candied mango and a caramel made from cherimoya, an odd-looking fruit with a delicious, custardy interior. Photo by James Worrell

The churrasco comes with a side of fried sweet plantains, sunset gold, slightly crisp and almost as yielding inside as pudding. They may be all the dessert you need. But I recommend the flan heaped with candied mango and caramel flavored with cherimoya (custard apple). Also worthy is Somos’s ice cream in the perfumed, exotic flavor of lucuma, an Andean fruit with a flavor hovering between maple and mango.

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Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
    Latin American
  • Price Range:
    Moderate
  • Price Details:
    Appetizers, $6-$35; entrées, $18-$34; desserts, $8-$10
  • Ambience:
    Contemporary, with convivial bar scene and family-friendly dining room
  • Service:
    Animated and attentive
  • Wine list:
    Mostly Spanish and New World wines; 23 beers; terrific signature cocktails, $11
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