Whizzing down North Lombard, you might not expect to find a quiet, tucked away destination restaurant situated near the freeway. But behind the popular Casa Zoraya is exactly that; the former parking lot was renovated as a result of the pandemic and has affectionately been dubbed Patio Zoraya. Covered (do your worst, rain!), adorned with fairy lights, and kept warm by two large patio heaters standing like twin sentinels to ward off chill, Patio Zoraya provides the backdrop to a cozy autumn evening out.
The restaurant is a family affair, with matriarch Zoraya Zambrano at the helm in the kitchen. Daughter Gloria Marmanillo is an affable hostess, bouncing back and forth wherever she’s needed; she keeps the line moving, mixes drinks at the bar, and flits from table to table, where her warm hospitality makes diners feel more like they’re in her backyard at a dinner party than a restaurant.
In this house, the heart of the menu skews heavily towards the mountainous informed foods of the Sacred Valley region where Zambrano hails from, then expands to encapsulate the full breadth of Peruvian cuisine. They’ve found a recipe for success, melding Zambrano’s traditional home style cooking with her son Gary’s touch of modernity. La casa is also extremely mindful of dietary restrictions, marking dishes on the menu as gluten free, dairy free, and vegetarian, but also making a point to ask all their diners if they have any food allergies.
Unsurprisingly, the family has found certain traditional ingredients challenging to source, but the restaurant gets by with a little help from their friends. Adjacent to the patio is a small garden plot where the family grows peppers gifted by customers in addition to ají amarillo (a sweet yellow pepper that goes into the sauce of the same name), rocoto peppers, huacatay (black mint), and Peruvian gooseberries.
“We use more kinds of potatoes and a lot of grains that we cannot find here,” said Marmanillo. Large kernels of choclo, a starchy corn, figure into dishes like the ceviche carretillero and locro de zapallo (squash stew), but Marmanillo wishes they could find fresh whole ears of it so they could serve the ubiquitous Peruvian street food choclo con queso.
Arroz con mariscos, the Peruvian version of paella, is a must for any seafood lover. In a foundation of creamy rice, salsa criolla (an onion relish) and chunks of avocado play a supporting role to an assortment of the seafood of the day. My plate was generously studded with tender calamari, fried Hawaiian ono, bay scallops, clams, and succulent shrimp.
Seafood has a good showing on the menu, which is great for "partial pescatarians" like North West (or full ones, for that matter), but if you’re in the mood for something decidedly more meaty, it’s hard to go wrong with one of Marmanillo’s favorites: the seco de cordero (lamb, spinach & cilantro sauce, garlic rice, beans). The dish has the same comforting qualities as a pot roast and although I’m not one of those unfortunate souls who tastes soap when eating cilantro, I don’t think cilantro haters will be able to detect the divisive herb in it.
Pro tip: Be forewarned, with only nine tables for the taking, you’d be wise to make a reservation.
Casa Zoraya, 841 N Lombard, (503) 384-2455, casazorayapdx.com