Food, ambiance make Q’ero the best restaurant in Encinitas

I’m not one to run around proclaiming things or establishments as the “best” of anything, but in the case of Q’ero, I have no hesitation whatsoever. I don’t have any fancy market research behind this decision, it was made quite simply after one of the most complete dining experiences I’ve had in a long time. My criteria was simple. Q’ero has a combination of a great location, elegance, sex appeal, warm design, a unique menu inspired by the cuisine of Peru and South America, fresh ingredients, an attentive and educated staff, vibrant and appreciative clientele, and most of all, a passion for what they do that is evident in every aspect of this restaurant. I’ll repeat that part about passion for what they do, as that is what elevates Q’ero to another level.
Let’s start with the location in the heart of old Encinitas on Coast Highway 101, a couple of doors down from one of our classic drinking establishments, the Daily Double. There is nothing pretentious about this location; Q’ero just fits in very nicely with the mix of old school Encinitas stores and the hip new salons and boutiques. I could tell by the warmth of the exterior, with the earth toned metallic sign, that there was some thought behind the design of this place. Owner Monica Szepesy so eloquently put it, “Q’ero truly feels like a vital, living force.” I would agree with that. Inside, Q’ero has a rustic, country elegance that exudes warmth and intimacy. It is a very sexy space and even its sidewalk seating feels like an extension of the interior. In the past when walking by, I was always jealous of the diners enjoying such an amazing location, not to mention the spectacular cuisine.
Q’ero is inspired by Peruvian and South American cuisine, and a journey that Monica took 10 years ago at 17,000 feet in the Andes. It was there that she learned of the Q’ero, a community said to be the guardians of ancient knowledge. The journey was life changing for Monica, and out of it was born her vision for what has come to be a restaurant of great integrity dedicated to the craft of slow cooking and the pleasures of dining. Much of the passion behind Q’ero is derived from this rich history.
The stellar kitchen is lead by Chef Marcial Rivera, and Sous-Chef Marcos Perez and they impressed me off the bat with their description of the daily special, a roasted quail with a sweetbread stuffing, Swiss chard and sangria reduction. This was a really amazing dish and after splitting it as a starter, I had to have one of my own as my entrée. The appetizer or entradas list off the menu was equally impressive with empanaditas filled with lentils, sweet potatoes and spinach, a top three of all time calamari a la diablada and a ceviche described as sea bass morsels “cooked” in fresh lemon juice with red onions, aji, and a touch of sea salt served with patacon and canchita. I’d love to give a detailed translation on all these ingredients, yet since I’m limited by space constraints, I’ll go with aji which is a spicy sauce that often contains tomatoes, cilantro, hot peppers, and onions. Aji has been used in Peru since the times of the Incas. They also offer a anticucho de carne which is a grilled flat iron steak skewer with marinated vegetable salad. Entradas range from $6 to $18 with the conchitas or quinoa crusted scallops in a spicy aji Amarillo sauce coming in on the high end at $18 though worth every dollar. There is a nice selection of unique salads, including my favorite, the spring quinoa salad with onions, fresh mint, grilled tomatoes drizzled with sacha-inchi oil, salt and cracked pepper. Salads are in the $12 to $14 range.
The entrees are where things really get interesting at Q’ero. The kitchen’s ability to utilize these exotic, yet simple Peruvian and South American ingredients to give chicken, short ribs, lamb shank, pork chops, fish, flat iron and skirt steak flavors and textures that you don’t encounter much, and the results are inspiring. Every other restaurant has braised short ribs, but how many braise them in chicha de jora — sacred sprouted corn beer, served over aji Amarillo mashed potatoes? Get my point? Eating at Q’ero is an adventure in dining with no pretension whatsoever. I’m not an expert in pairing wines with these flavors yet the servers were more than happy to oblige and did so very successfully.
Our desert of a tres leches cake, or “three milk cake” is a white cake soaked in three kinds of milk: evaporated milk, condensed milk and heavy cream. It’s an amazingly light cake, with many air bubbles. Another first for me at Q’ero and a perfect end to a delightful evening of dining in downtown Encinitas.
I would suggest a reservation as it’s always busy. Open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. except Friday and Saturday it’s open until 10 p.m. Check them out at www.qerorestaurant.com.

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