Northwest cuisine, as practiced in Portland these days, often follows one of three sprawling scripts: 1) The three-napkin fried chicken blockbuster. 2) Tone poems of clouds, drips, and weeds, tweezered on a plate. 3) The saga of warring vegan, gluten-free, and Porkland kingdoms. (Like many tragic heroes, salmon, once the star of the table/fable, was killed off seasons ago.)
But every once in a while, a concept can’t be pigeonholed: in this case, Paiche, now playing in the foodie desert of Southwest’s Lair Hill neighborhood. Here, Lima native Jose Luis de Cossio writes his own mad food story, weaving Peruvian cuisine, rooted in Portland farms and fields, with dandified dish deconstructions and a health-focused mission to boot. Local pea tendrils and Oregon strawberries find new purpose alongside ingredients you might spy during a cliff-hugging, Buñuelian bus ride to Machu Picchu. House cebiches call forth the sun god, as mounds of glistening fish rise over shooting rays of golden aji pepper sauces and puffed corn. And that’s before you get to crazy purée swirls and edible sculptures that rival a Las Vegas carpet for baroque wildness.
Some of de Cossio’s dishes are amazing; others taste like health co-op specials. But Paiche is never boring, as the one-time Andina chef navigates the outer edges of Portland, Peru, and Pluto. For better and worse, I’m in.
In one respect, Paiche is classic Portland: it operates with limited hours and a first-come, first-served sign-up sheet posted outside. (Why does eating out in this city feel more complicated than hacking nuclear launch codes?) Right now, lunch is the main option, Wednesday through Saturday, with plans for one dinner weekly. Inside, all is chill and calm. Paiche embraces leisure—for us, and for the sweetly sleepwalking staff. The restless menu demands lingering: full of words we rarely hear in this latitudinal zone, huacatay herb spreads to lucuma caramel, not to mention the kitchen’s cache of Peruvian pepper varietals. Keep your phone handy for frantic Google searches.
The daily menu is heaven for vegetarians and pescatarians, as de Cossio remixes citrus-cured fish, anticuchos (Andean kebabs), vegetable-grain ideations, and tamales, most of them $10–20. Nothing is tossed off. Each dish juggles a handful of core ingredients with complex marinades and unusual flavor schemes, and de Cossio rarely sticks to an exact formula. Three dishes per table should deliver the full Paiche adventure ... more than that, and the gestalt can feel tedious.
Whatever else, know this: you want one of the daily cebiches. Before landing in Portland in 2005, de Cossio worked under Gastón Acurio, the David Chang of Peru, manning his hot spot cebicheria La Mar in Lima and, later, San Francisco. Dude knows his way around a leche de tigre, that invigorating wash of hot peppers, lime, and fish juice that forms the soul of cebiche. At Paiche it pools gloriously beneath clusters of daily fish, cancha (Peru’s toasty, up-jumped corn nuts), giant white Andean choclo kernels, each bite squirting corn juice, and fleshy purple potatoes. Also watch for seared fish skewers alongside various intrigues—spicy watermelon, passion fruit carrots, or, perhaps, dried Peruvian potatoes reborn as risotto.
Vegetables and grain dishes take even more risks than the fish plates (kudos!) but are also more of a mixed bag, sometimes lacking balance (too much bitter, or too little heat) or textural counterpoints (soft on soft on soft). The star of a recent tamal dish wasn’t the plate’s hulking mass of corn-mush blankness but rather a startling side salad of radicchio and green strawberries dressed in an eye-popping purple corn glaze sweetened with coconut fat. Homely quinoa salads hold delicious surprises—one week’s haul had marinated, poached apples, big candied walnuts, and “chimichurri” made from coastal sea beans and grapefruit. But the kitchen’s love of sauce schmears and swoopology grows tiresome, even in an exotic salad.
The 44-year-old chef is just cranking up with his own ideas. Paiche (the king of Amazonian fish—and de Cossio’s childhood nickname) is his first solo venture, opened in December with his wife, Casimira Tadewaldt. Right now, he disavows allegiance to any particular movement, including his background in modern novoandina cooking. An avid surfer, de Cossio seems to live in the moment, no matter where it takes him. Recently, he was test-driving a cold soup of strawberries, mint, and Peru’s pre-Columbian pallar beans, mammoth and buttery. The inspiration came not from the Andean peaks but from a playful mescal gazpacho spied on the menu at Le Pigeon. “It got me to thinking,” said de Cossio excitedly. “Then I jumped from that idea to a dish for a Peruvian restaurant. That’s cool, yes?” Yes.