It’s 11:30pm as we trudge back to my mom’s car, our stomachs full. We sit in silence for a moment or two, soaking in all the food and stories we heard over the last four hours.
My mom finally speaks.
“It’s like he’s lived five lives,” she says in amazement.
I nod, thinking of the wall full of photos, newspaper clippings and accolades spanning decades.
“Do you know how you want to write about him?” she asks me.
Where to even start?
Do I start at the opening of Cesar Izuierdo’s restaurant, Taste of Peru?
Do I start when his family moves from Peru to Chicago in 1974?
Or maybe I start when the Incas made their first conquest? Or when the Incan empire fell to the Spanish, Lima rose up and Macchu Piccu fell into obscurity?
Or maybe none of the above.
Maybe I start with a 17-year-old’s journey to Peru in 2009, her camera at the ready as she passed church after church, taking in the layers of history in a country of conquests. Her fork pushing around unrecognizable foods so she can pick out the chicken and rice that she does know. Her head always looking straight ahead to absorb the history all around her, never considering that some of that history might be right there on the table below her gaze.
That’s certainly where I start when Izquierdo pulls up a chair at Taste of Peru, a seemingly unassuming restaurant in the middle of a strip mall in Rogers Park.
“I wasn’t very adventurous back then,” I admit. “So, I’m thrilled to be here tonight trying everything.”
Izquierdo smiles, leans back and begins telling the first of so many stories we’ll hear.
“Peruvian food is coming up real fast right now,” he says. “The best restaurants in the world are in Lima. Not just Peruvian food. You can go over there and try Chinese food, for example.”
As he explains the roots of Peruvian foods, he pauses to talk to our waitress, speaking rapidly in Spanish about what we’ve ordered for appetizers so far, adding a few entrees to the list. One of the dishes that is soon placed on our table is the Lomo Saltado, a delicious traditional Peruvian dish that combines strips of steak with stir-fried onions, tomatoes and potatoes, served on top of a heaping, delicious pile of white rice. If the thought of a stir-fried rice dish conjures up the image of your favorite Chinese restaurant, there’s a reason for that.
As the Associated Press explains, some 100,000 Chinese migrants came to Peru in the second half of the 19th century, mostly from the Canton region. They were put to work as contract laborers as the African slave trade was coming to an end. They brought recipes and spices with them, and the Lomo Saltado eventually rose up as a regional staple in Peru.
When I was a teenager visiting Peru, I counted on that sweet white rice at every meal, fearing the unknown. It was the foundation of every meal and seemed so basic at the time. If only I had known the history behind it, the commentary it provided on the class-system of a burgeoning Latin-American nation.
“You gotta realize all these different places that they had,” Izquierdo explains. “We had all the seafood, then the Spanish and Italians had started doing their paella. So, we threw the chicken out and threw out the sausage. We actually took from every place, from up north, from the South, from the Andes… and then you’ve got the food from the Amazon, this totally different thing. All kinds of fruit you never see.”
He pauses for a moment as the waiter places three small bowls of sauce down in the middle of our table. Izquierdo arranges them carefully, recommending the aji amarillo, a peppery yellow sauce that he says is a staple of Peruvian food. He likens it to chili sauce. The next sauce is rocoto. The third dish, jacatai, is traditionally a blend of jalapeno and black mint. He mentions that he grows the herbs for jacatai at his home just a block away from the restaurant.
Admittedly, the mention of his herb garden is the kind of small fact that could easily sidetrack the conversation. But Izquierdo is on a mission to tell the story of his homeland. He’s not to be deterred. He guides us right back to the history of Peruvian cuisine, saving the stories of Rogers Park for another point in the conversation.
“So anyways,” he begins, leaning back once more, “from all those places, they make their individual food,.. For example, tripe. That comes from slaves in Peru… Just so many dishes. I have Chinese people come over here and they go, ‘your fried rice is better than our fried rice.’ Why? Because we make it Peruvian-style. We’ve got a lot of interest from the Chinese people, from the Japanese people, from the Arabs. We took from so many things.”
He pauses for a beat, then continues on, ready to now talk about Chicago.
“It’s actually a lot like Rogers Park is,” he says. “Very diverse. It’s one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the United States, with over 120 languages that they speak around here.”
Izquierdo and his family came to the United States in 1974 in search of a better life. They settled down in Chicago, where Izquierdo tells me he struggled to find good Peruvian restaurants. Eventually, in 1998, he opened his own restaurant, Taste of Peru.
“It was a long shoot, you know?” He explains. “We put out menus, but nobody wanted to take the menus. They didn’t know about Peruvian food.”
He recalls stationing himself at bus and train stops, telling couples that he’d just had some “really good food” at a new restaurant.
“So they’d come, I’d run in through the back of the restaurant, they’d look at me and they’d laugh,” Izquierdo recalls. “That’s how, little by little, it grew.”
Since those early days, Izquierdo has been written about in just about all the Chicago papers and many international papers and magazines as well, all of which hang proudly on the back wall of the restaurant. He’s been on local news programs and featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
The restaurant’s story on its own is remarkable. But Izquierdo has left his mark in so many other ways on Rogers Park, through his community activism. Those stories are also on display on his wall. He remembers the drug deals that routinely occurred on this very block more than 20 years ago. He points out the window toward a building down the street.
“We used to do surveillance in there,” he says. “You know CAPS? Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy? I started with that because my wife wanted to move – I live a block and a half away from here, and we saw four different shootings in one day… Back then, I had been doing construction and put a lot of money in my house and said, ‘not for somebody else.’ So I started keeping a camera, talking to beat officers, getting license plates.”
He remembers trying to get people to check out his restaurant during those tense years.
“I’d say, ‘come to my restaurant!’ They’d say, ‘where is your restaurant?’ I’d tell them and they’d say ‘ohhh, no!'”
But now, it’s different, Izquierdo says proudly.
One of the things that I loved best about eating at Taste of Peru was seeing the pride Izquierdo has for his restaurant. It goes without saying that becoming a restaurant owner, and a successful one at that, isn’t easy, and should be cause for celebration. But when I look around at the newspaper clippings on the wall, and think back on several hours worth of stories from Izquierdo about the hardships that he overcame to leave Peru, to open his own business in Chicago, to make a livelihood, to provide a home and community that was safe for his family to live in and to educate patrons about how delicious Peruvian food was, it’s overwhelming. Izquierdo doesn’t attempt to hide his pride at the hard work he’s put into all of these facets of his life, and it was so refreshing to hear his enthusiasm in every story, big and small.
As a writer, this story was simultaneously one of the easiest and hardest ones I’ve written yet, and it’s taken a lot of time to figure out just how to write it all down. I’m quite certain if given a fresh start, I could come up with several other ways to write about Taste of Peru. I knew right away I was speaking to someone with a fascinating story. I just didn’t know how many hundreds of stories there were to tell about the experiences that have happened between the four walls of this restaurant and beyond. I thought I would leave with a greater appreciation for Peruvian food, and I certainly did. But I didn’t expect to leave with this new appreciation for the neighborhood that his restaurant is surrounded by. I gained invaluable insights into so many cultures, including my own, that I thought only a passport could provide.
Izquierdo’s pride was absolutely contagious. My mom, uncle and I all left feeling proud of his restaurant, and proud to know someone so passionate about his work, his Peruvian home’s history and his Chicago home’s future.