Restaurant review: Indisputably sunny, Palmeira shines with bold, bright flavors

Apr. 27—Palmeira, the new Latin fusion restaurant staking its claim on an off-the-beaten-path downtown block, seems to have its own weather system. Walking in, as I did for the first time during a late spring snowstorm, felt like walking through a break in the clouds. Sunny is the only word for it. The room, the music, the service and, happily, the food, is indisputably sunny.

I have been excited to try this festive new eatery ever since photos of chilaquiles and ceviches started finding their way into my inbox and my Facebook feed. I love the bright vibrant flavors of Latin food and after this long winter and stalled-out spring, I was drawn to the promise of bold flavors and warm spices.

I met my friend Maureen for a midweek lunch and the dining room was hopping. It's a spirited space with a busy, open kitchen, hustling servers, lively music and animated diners. There was a birthday being celebrated at a corner and, to be honest, the whole space felt more like a party and less like a midweek, lunch break fuel-up. We snagged the very last table and pondered the fun yet focused menu.

We started with a plate of chilaquiles ($14.50) with red and spicy pork to share nacho-style. The tortillas, spread with the rich, comforting pork and tomato stew, redolent with guajillo chili, and studded with bacon and chorizo, are finished with cheese and sour cream. It's a rustic yet decadent dish with a range of flavors and textures — soft in the center, crispy at the edges with mellow slow-cooked flavors that contrast with the bright hits of freshness and acid from the pickled onions, freshly sliced radishes and generous sprigs of cilantro.

Maureen opted for a sandwich-soup combo ($14.50) with a satisfying chicken, pepper jack, and pesto sandwich served on hearty prairie bread. But it was the cup of zucchini-poblano soup alongside it that stole the show. Creamy and mellow with subtle, slow-burn spice and light bright herbal notes, this was a wholesome, hearty bowlful of comfort. She also ordered a hibiscus rosemary soda ($5.50) that I forgot to try but looked beautiful.

I opted for a chicken "crunchy wrap," $12.50; shrimp and pork varieties are also available. This is an elevated version of the favorite, a crisply grilled flour tostada stuffed with meat, vegetables, refried beans and cheese, and completely blanketed in a luscious, velvety chipotle sauce. It's a substantial dish and despite my very best efforts, I had to bring half of it home.

I returned with my daughter a couple of weeks later and there was a decided sea change between visits. First, the snow outside was finally giving up the ghost and second, Palmeira, all grown-up now, had acquired its beer and wine license. Micheladas are on the menu and the party is on.

My daughter opted for simple avocado toast ($13.50) while I opted for huevos escondidos, or "hidden eggs" ($18.50), which was anything but simple. Hilariously, we also decided to split an Asian Paradise salad ($14.50), which turned out to be so huge and hearty that we couldn't even begin to tackle it. This is a decidedly main dish, not a delicate side of a few dressed greens to make you feel good about your other menu choices. Heaps of mushrooms, zucchini spirals, red cabbage, carrots, peas, mandarin orange segments, cashews and a pile of soba noodles were packed beautifully into a giant bowl. It was glorious with only one complaint — it's simply too big for the bowl. The soy peanut gochujang vinaigrette dressing, which I would love to buy in a bottle, is layered onto the bottom, leaving you to try and toss it without turning into the Swedish Chef. We gave up, packed it to go and enjoyed it — thoroughly — as dinner that night.

My daughter's avocado toast was simple, rustic and hearty. A generous bed of creamy mashed avocado tops crisp focaccia toast with bright tangy notes from cherry tomatoes, sundried tomatoes, green onions and microgreens. But it was the chili oil that dresses the plate that really sets this dish above the competition. At first, I though the drizzle of oil on both sides of the plate was a bit stingy. But then I tried it. This flavorful swipe of sauce is a powerhouse and a little goes a long way.

My "hidden eggs" were a knockout with a "more is more" point of view. Two crisp tostadas encase two eggs made to order — over easy in my case — with crisp bites of pork chicharrons, pico de gallo, tomato and red sauces, cilantro and cotija cheese. The smoky chiles, creamy eggs, crunchy pork and crisp tostadas make for a playful yet comforting dish, and it took two determined eaters to do justice to this decadent plateful.

I'm delighted that the dining room was full-up on both my visits and there was even a bit of a wait when we left our Sunday brunch. But don't be deterred. The staff running the floor are pros. Things move quickly at Palmeira and someone in charge is always scoping out the next available table. A little patience reaps big rewards.

Happily, spring has finally gotten a foothold in Anchorage, and I welcome the warm days and long nights. But I have a little less seasonal anxiety now that I know where to go for a dose of culinary sunshine. There are few known cures for a long-winter hangover but lush greenery, spicy chilaquiles, and drinks with paper umbrellas are among them. And Palmeira has them all.

If you go:

Palmeira

323 Barrow St.

907-669-2626

Tuesday-Saturday: 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Sunday: 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

****

$$

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