At first glance, the tiny corner storefront occupied by Caleta 111 Cevicheria, blends in with the dollar stores, bodegas and banks under the rumbling J train tracks along Jamaica Avenue in Richmond Hill, Queens. A closer look through the restaurant’s steaming glass windows, however, reveals chef Luis Caballero and his line cooks, all in uniform whites and Panama-style hats, pinching tumbles of seaweed between foot-long metal chopsticks and placing them atop mounds of super-fresh, juicy fish.
Caleta, at 111-27 Jamaica Avenue, near 112th Street, is the first solo project for Caballero, who last worked under chef Erik Ramirez at celebrated Williamsburg Peruvian restaurant Llama Inn and its West Village counterpart, Llamita. And while the food at his new restaurant builds on the experience there, he’s also leaning into the food he ate growing up in Peru. Caballero’s father worked in the Peruvian coast guard, and would make the family travel between various ports along the Peruvian coastline. At each stop, fishermen would gift his family freshly-caught seafood that his mom would later turn into ceviche.
“I always wanted to have my own restaurant — something with soul,” says Caballero. “Something that evokes my mom’s cooking.”
The memories of that cooking live on in the five different ceviches offered at Caleta: corvina, shrimp, shellfish, mixed, and a custom option. To maintain the freshness of his ceviches, he marinates the seafood in a citrusy mixture called leche de tigre for just two minutes prior to serving the dish. This marinade also attracted the attention of New York Times critic Pete Wells, who just gave the restaurant a one-star review, writing that Caleta stands out among other Peruvian eateries in the neighborhood.
Aside from the ceviche, Caballero also serves up dishes like mashed potatoes offered with three different kinds of ceviche toppings; a green shellfish soup loaded with shrimp, calamari, mussels and clams; and a Cusqueña beer-marinated kingfish stew — all the hot preparations are cooked on a portable four-burner cooktop. The dishes range in price from $19 to $25.
The cozy restaurant seats just 20 in the dining room at sit-down tables and at the counter, but that will change soon. Caballero is looking to expand the space this summer adding a full kitchen that will allow him to cook some of his other Peruvian favorites including Chinese-influenced dishes like lomo saltado, a stir-fry; Creole carapulcra, a pork and freeze-dried potato stew; and coastal yuyo, a type of seaweed tempura.
The restaurant marks the culmination of Caballero’s years-long effort to open his own restaurant in the city. Armed with a culinary degree and some experience as a line cook, Caballero moved to NYC in 2013 to cook at a Peruvian food festival in Long Island. He began working for Ramirez not too long after at the now shuttered, high-end Peruvian restaurant Raymi, and followed him to Llama Inn, and the now-closed Llamita. With Caleta, he’s ready for his own cooking to be in the spotlight.
The restaurant is open everyday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.