Food & DrinkFood Features

Peruvian Restaurant Yunta Shows Two Vibes in South End

A green tamale topped with pork belly
A green tamale topped with pork belly at Yunta. (Photo by Timothy DePeugh)

It was at brunch that I finally changed my mind about Yunta, or at least came to some sort of understanding with myself about the type of restaurant it has the potential to be.

That this, the new Peruvian-Japanese restaurant in South End from the owners of Viva Chicken, should be anything other than a crowd-pleaser seemed a foregone conclusion. I’ve had Viva Chicken. I like Viva Chicken. Who doesn’t like Viva Chicken?

And it’s likely I had fast food on my mind when I walked into Yunta for the first time. There was a moment when I asked my friends if we had come to the right place. To be sure, any notions I had around having a chill dinner at a fast-casual restaurant that evening quickly evaporated as the hostess confirmed in a pleasant though slightly threatening tone that our entire party had arrived. They take this detail very seriously at Yunta.

As we were shown a table by the door, I realized that a lot was being taken seriously at Yunta. The interior, for example, industrial chic and designed in shades of black and neutral, with a white marble bar wrapped around an open kitchen — it reminded me of another, recently opened Asian-adjacent restaurant in South End, except Yunta’s felt more of a statement, like, “This is a scene. We thought you should know.”

Or the service. Hard to miss the army of staff — all dressed better than me; I’d rarely felt so sheepish — weaving in and out of each other, racing to tables to top off glasses of water, go through a menu, or flash wry smiles of acknowledgment at just how lucky you all are to be here, a scene.

Or, finally, when I stopped worrying about my wardrobe long enough to order a drink, the cocktails. These are serious drinks at Yunta. In a menu full of witty Pisco concoctions and clever spins on the types of Japanese libations Bill Murray might have hawked in Lost in Translation, I went the more classic route and ordered the Pisco Sour. When in Peru (by way of South Boulevard), right? Impeccably crafted and presented, it was velvety and tart, two very necessary things on a humid summer eve. By the end of that first visit, I had had three.

The rest of that first visit played out as expected when crowd-pleasing is a foregone conclusion. Shrimp croquettes were designed precisely to make diners swoon, and that’s exactly what they did. Oof, they were so luxe — a crisp exterior so delicate that a single nudge from a tooth could make it collapse and send that rich, creamy center gushing forth. 

Better next time to have a napkin ready when attempting to eat one, and better still to run your fork through the aji amarillo sauce on the side first, as that piquant swathe of heat and concentrated pepper flavor is exactly the right thing to bring balance to a bite that might otherwise be too rich. Most importantly, the sauce was yellow.

The sauce on the acevichado maki was also yellow. My group that day shared many things, but, as particularly cynical types of foodies, we shared, especially in this town, a special anxiety toward anything “maki.” Were Yunta’s going to be the obnoxious and patronizing sort, whose very existence constituted a hate crime, but one that caused most people to look away because how else would they know they were eating Asian food?

(Photo by Timothy DePeugh)

No, Yunta’s were a response to those. If you’re going to bastardize maki, then this is how you do it: with flair, with textures, and with unexpected flavors. Give me more of that fried shrimp, that cheeky, crispy corn, and that rice that’s not quite sushi rice, but rather is more like something seasoned from a pre-mixed packet and microwaved, which is totally the compliment it doesn’t sound like. I’ll even have more of that nondescript yellow sauce.

The point being, we had fun that first visit. We tried other dishes, of course, but after all those very serious drinks, my memory of them has faded. The yellow-ness of everything we had that day, on the other hand, has not. It’s become a running joke in a group chat, in fact, that I walked out of Yunta that day asking, “Why does everything have to be so yellow, yellow, yellow?” Whereas all I truly remember is asking myself, “Is this my favorite new restaurant in Charlotte?”

The follow-up

And then fate conspired to make my second visit a disaster. There was even a flood, and I thought I was going to die.

On my drive over to the restaurant that night, the skies opened up and unleashed a fury of the particularly Southern and summertime sort. I let my friend off as close as possible to the entrance — neither of us had umbrellas — and I drove around looking for a place to park.

When I finally made it into the restaurant, I was so thoroughly soaked that you could see my tattoos and nipples through my polo shirt and my jeans were doing their damndest, along with gravity, to pull themselves off. But my friend was still standing there at the hostess stand.

“They said they don’t seat incomplete parties.”

I told you they take this point seriously.

But what made that a problem that night, on top of the weather or thanks to it, was that many other people had the same idea: drop friends off, go look for parking. And the people who were already seated and close to finishing their meals had the collective idea to sit a while longer and let the rain pass. So much so that by the time my reservation time came and went, there was a bottleneck at the door: complete and incomplete parties alike, drenched, and nowhere to seat them. This was a weekday night to boot. What exactly was going on?

When we were finally shown our table, I was still dripping all over the place, much to the chagrin of the pretty people seated all around me. Like the many dogs I see all around town, I tried to shake myself dry — I had by this time asked for napkins no less than 10 times — and all I succeeded in doing was making everything else wet.

Our server appeared, without napkins, to take our drink order. At least, I think that’s what she was asking. The music was so loud that if I didn’t walk into Yunta that night with hearing problems, I would surely leave with them.

I then started noticing the Chanel bags around me, the too-short skirts, the eyeliner, the single bros at the bar trying their hardest to pick up on the single women at the bar, and in the chaos of it all, I worried this time I was legitimately underdressed. Unlike the woman in the beyond-chic black party dress sitting next to me, I was unintentionally showing my nipples. And then I heard my friend say to the server, here at the new Peruvian restaurant, that she didn’t eat chilies.

What exactly was going on?

A very serious drink calmed me down. (By now, this has become a theme, and that theme is that I am, more likely than not, an alcoholic.) And then the food started to arrive. For my friend, a bespoke, no-chili meal of grilled beef and roasted potatoes. She did agree, however, to share the shrimp croquettes with me, due in no small part to how much I raved about them, but as seemed apropos for anything trying to happen that night, these shrimp croquettes were bricks of cold, murky sludge, light years from the wonderful things I had previously. We sent them back.

(Photo by Timothy DePeugh)

The greatest thing about the rest of the food I ordered was that yellow had this time given way to white. Is every week at Yunta a different color? Why was everything white? The clear winner was octopus tiradito, which wore its white sauce like a cloak, hiding profound depth and umami intensity underneath. My server had warned me not to order it because the black olive aioli would be too much to handle. I openly defied her, just as the flavors on this dish openly defy sashimi convention.

The clear loser was, well, anything with Parmesan cheese. I have already made the promise to myself to research Parmesan’s place in Peruvian cuisine. I can only assume its importance based on the fact that at least half of the dishes on the menu feature Parmesan in some fashion. It’s my own fault, therefore, that I ordered the Parmesano maki. The shrimp and scallops were lost on my palate, buried underneath mounds of Parmesan cheese so ostentatious that they have the very real possibility, especially at the nightclub scene Yunta had become, of being mistaken for cocaine.

shrimp and scallop maki covered in Parmesan cheese
The Parmesano maki at Yunta. (Photo by Timothy DePeugh)

The point being, on that second visit, Yunta had so succeeded in becoming the scene it so desired that food, service, and decorum had been violently pushed aside in favor of high heels, loud music, and names-on-lists. The only respite for the low key crowd would be in wistful memories of erstwhile croquettes, at home.

But then on my third and most recent visit, I finally figured it out.

Why, at 12:01 p.m. on a Saturday, is the music so loud? Who is there to hear it? The army of servers, yes, but for my friend and I who were sat in the back, in one of the booths for two that are far more comfortable than they look, we couldn’t process anything without a very serious drink.

Our bottle of San Pelligrino was given the same ice bucket treatment as a bottle of Dom.

Our server must have known how charming he was and made sure that we were up to speed with every single detail in the dishes we ordered.

The drinks remained very serious. I had a red wine sangria with blueberries that almost made me forget about the impeccable Pisco Sours.

Parmesan cheese was used more sparingly this time, more of a seasoning than an ode to an 8-ball.

And we had what I’m declaring here in August to be the single best dish I’ve had in Charlotte in 2022: a green tamale topped with slices of crisp, fatty pork belly. It’s not even on the menu, for shame, but happened to be a special on that special afternoon.

You see, it was at brunch that I finally changed my mind about Yunta, or at least came to some sort of understanding with myself about the type of restaurant it has the potential to be.

For a very specific window of time on any given day — namely, whenever the sun is up, hours removed from the scene and the thumpa-thump, and when there is no suggestion of rain in the forecast  — Yunta, otherwise a hot mess when it is trying too hard to be hot, is a very good restaurant.

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