Thirty-five years ago, Elizabeth Large, then the restaurant critic at The Sun, reviewed the Little Italy restaurant Velleggia’s, which had recently undergone a major renovation.
According to Large, at the time, it was practically unheard of for a restaurant to completely transform its physical space. “I’ve never known a successful restaurant to do what Velleggia’s in Little Italy did,” she wrote.
Today, on the other hand, that sort of undertaking is commonplace. In the current restaurant market where diners are informed, social media rules and genuinely good restaurants open regularly, even highly lauded, fairly new restaurants know better than to rest on their laurels.
Case in point: Puerto 511.
When it opened four years ago, Puerto 511 was an instant hit; Baltimoreans immediately took to chef/owner Jose Victorio Alarcon’s spin on Peruvian dishes, flocking to the small restaurant despite its location slightly off the beaten path (downtown, just east of Lexington Market), and its bare-bones décor.
Probably, chef Alarcon could’ve just kept trucking along, doing what he was doing, and diners would continue to arrive. His food is that good.
Instead, Alarcon opted to join a smattering of restaurants that have recently rebranded, renovated or refreshed in some way, either starting over as a brand new concept, or changing their menus and spaces. Earlier this year, Waterfront Kitchen turned over an entirely new leaf, becoming Ampersea. Later this month, Brewhouse No. 16 will reopen after a brief hiatus and overhaul. Even perennial favorite Clavel is staying on its toes, just about doubling in size and introducing a new mezcal tasting program.
At Puerto 511, the recent updates worked. While closed for two and a half months, the restaurant received a welcome facelift, reopening in February. Outside, the formerly understated façade is now wrapped in wood with wild grain and gray undertones, making the restaurant stand out from the rest of its short (and mostly nondescript) city block.
The formerly spare interior now feels modern and calming, with mid-century modern-style chairs, cool gray accents and, in a nod to the restaurant’s exterior, wood planks framing the large window into the kitchen. Downstairs, the gray, modern look continues in a room designed for private parties.
Alarcon is introducing new items to the menu, too, though Puerto 511 devotees don’t have to worry, for he has no plans to jettison existing favorites. He workshops prospective new dishes on the weekends, when the restaurant offers a prix fixe menu only. (During our Thursday night visit, my dining partner and I ordered from the à la carte menu; the dishes we tried have been part of the restaurant’s repertoire since before its reopening.)
Rotisserie chicken might be the first thing you think of when you imagine Peruvian cuisine; after all, there’s a fair amount of that available in Baltimore and it’s often pretty great. But Puerto 511 is not a chicken joint.
Instead, chef Alarcon’s menu is a broader representation of the country’s cuisine, from street food to seafood. And it’s all terrific.
Our meal started with a small (and free) dish of crispy plantains, sliced thin like potato chips, paired with a creamy, slightly spicy sauce for dipping.
Next up: ceviche. Peru has about 1,500 miles of coastline, so it’s no surprise that seafood is a culinary staple.
An entire section of the Puerto 511 menu is devoted to ceviches. We kept it simple with the Clasico, a combination of chunky white fish, huge kernels of Andean corn and chunks of sweet potato adding unexpected heft. The mixture was seasoned with cilantro, red onion, lime, the chili pepper aji limo and “leche de tigre,” a citrusy marinade that brought all the flavors together.
Few local restaurants have heart on the menu, and though it sounds a little scary, the tender cut is one of our favorites. So when we spotted an appetizer of grilled veal hearts, we felt compelled to order it.
It was a good call, too. Marinated in chili peppers, garlic, cumin and oregano, then grilled on a skewer, and served with a grilled round of potato, corn and two sauces (one spicier than the other), the dish was lovely, an excellent example of how traditional street foods can be elevated when handled with care.
Lomo saltado, a steak, onion and tomato stir-fry topped with garlicky fries and served over white rice, is one of the workhorse dishes of Peruvian cuisine. It’s something you’ll see on the menu at nicer restaurants like Puerto 511, and at fast casual spots like Chicken Rico.
Puerto 511’s lomo saltado is a cut above what you’d find, thanks in large part to the quality of the meat. This version’s ribeye, cooked to medium rare, was more tender than might even be necessary for a dish like this, but we weren’t complaining.
Arroz con mariscos is one of the sexier dishes on the menu. This Peruvian take on paella included shrimp (one with the head on), mussels, octopus and squid, tossed with strips of red onion and tomato, cilantro, peas, chili peppers and more of that Andean corn, all served over rice.
A trio of New Zealand lamb chops, served over potatoes and greens, were fantastic. The dish’s most interesting, and most Peruvian, element was its ocopa sauce–a condiment made with the creamy black mint paste huacatay.
Across all the dishes, a couple themes emerged. One, the kitchen staff has strong technical skills. Every dish was cooked just right. No bite was even a little chewy, or a little dry.
And two, chef Alarcon is a master of powerful flavors. Though a handful of ingredients showed up in more than one dish–particularly those big corn kernels–each plate had distinct, fully formed flavor that was utterly its own.
Puerto 511 is BYOB. During our visit, most of the guests in the dining room skipped alcohol in favor of chicha morada, a traditional Peruvian drink that looks enough like red wine that its sunny flavor comes as something of a surprise.
The deep color comes from one of its main ingredients, purple corn. The drink’s other ingredients–pineapple, cinnamon and lime–drive its bright taste.
Though chica morada is appealing, I thought the intensity of its flavor might overpower some of the food; I was glad we brought wine with us. But your mileage may vary: Almost everyone else in the restaurant seemed to be getting along just fine with chica morada as the main beverage.
The restaurant’s two dessert options were both more elegant than we expected.
Quinoa flan sounds a little like a health food experiment that could easily go awry, but in practice, it worked. Layered across the custard, the grain added texture that made the dessert more interesting.
Peruvian “toast”–toasted brioche with vanilla ice cream, a drizzle of chocolate sauce and the sweet cream manjar blanco–was also a crowd-pleaser. The flaky toast provided texture and heft and kept the dish from tipping into too-sweet territory.
From the flavors to the space, our meal at Puerto 511 was nearly perfect–not a word I toss around lightly. But there was one issue: the service.
During our visit, the restaurant was clearly understaffed. A kind man circulated through the dining room, refilling water glasses and checking on customers. But when we asked him for dessert, a language barrier got in the way.
Our orders, for every course, were taken by chef Alarcon directly; he popped out of the kitchen occasionally to tend to the tables. We also observed him doing much of the cooking.
The restaurant is small–just a handful of tables–but Alarcon’s double duty meant that the meal’s pacing was slower than it could’ve been, especially toward its end.
The staffing issue was likely an anomaly–we seemed to have caught Puerto 511 on a night when they were scrambling, service-wise. One more person manning the dining room would’ve made all the difference–and would’ve turned a very good meal into a stellar one.
Puerto 511, 102 W. Clay St., (410) 244-8837, puerto511.com
Final Grade: B
Bottom Line: After a recent closure to spruce up the space, Puerto 511 has reopened and is better than ever, delivering powerful flavors in every dish. The restaurant was understaffed during our visit, but that wouldn’t keep me from going back again. And again and again.