It took six attempts to get the heart-shaped window at Chifa exactly right. Though the trial, error, and broken glass were frustrating in the moment for the owners of the new Peruvian-Chinese restaurant in Eagle Rock, the effort was ultimately worth it. “It’s the first time I’m doing a family business like this and I wanted to come up with a symbol that really represented us,” says Humberto Leon, the restaurant’s chief marketing officer. “It’s such a perfect symbol because it so immediately brings joy.” Humberto, the co-founder of cult fashion brand Opening Ceremony and the former creative director of Kenzo, in partnership with his mother, Wendy Leon (affectionately known as Popo, which means maternal grandmother in Cantonese), sister Ricardina Leon, and brother-in-law John Liu, opened Chifa over Thanksgiving weekend.
The deeply personal project celebrates the family’s rich culinary history, which spans from Peru to China and Taiwan. The 1,400-square-foot, 1950s-era building has been thoroughly transformed into a dining destination inspired by the original Chifa restaurant that the family’s matriarch, Wendy, owned in Lima, Peru, nearly a half-century ago. Chifa, which simply means “Chinese restaurant” in Peruvian, comes from the Cantonese chī fàn, translating to “eat rice.” The term invites diners to gather around the table when used colloquially.
“We did not plan to open with a pandemic occurring,” says Ricardina, Chifa’s CEO. “[But] ironically, timing seems to be right. Our food reminds many of the home-cooked meals that they probably have not had for a while because they haven’t been able to see Mom or Grandma.”
In many ways, this iteration of Chifa in Eagle Rock was decades in the making. The family opened the original restaurant in 1975 when Wendy, her Peruvian husband, Ricardo José Leon, and their three young children relocated to Lima. Cantonese dishes like si yao (soy sauce) chicken and barbecued pork attracted a local Chinese clientele seeking a taste of home. “Peru has a strong history with Chinese immigrants,” says Humberto. “Chinese food has really seeped into Peruvian culture. If you look at classic Peruvian dishes [e.g., lomo saltado], a lot of Chinese ingredients are seeped in.”
When internal conflict in Peru forced the Leons to immigrate to the U.S. in 1977, Wendy sold the business to a family member, leaving the successful restaurant behind to ensure a brighter future for her family. The Leons settled in Highland Park, a stone’s throw from Eagle Rock, and began life anew with Ricardo managing Golden Palace restaurant in Chinatown and Wendy earning piece work wages in a garment factory.
Though Wendy worked in food service throughout her career and helped run the front of house in restaurants owned by her brother in the ’80s and ’90s, this rebirth of Chifa is her first restaurant since parting with the one in Lima. “The dream was always to open up a restaurant,” says Humberto. “So now, 45 years later, we’re coming back to the neighborhood and reopening my mom’s original concept. A lot of the dishes are my mom’s, but it’s a collaboration between our family.” Liu, a dedicated home cook whose professional career was in finance, is spearheading the kitchen — he’s been cooking alongside Wendy and learning her recipes for decades. Liu’s contributions to the menu include Taiwanese dishes like the beef noodle soup based on his father’s recipe, which requires plenty of braised brisket and multiple days of preparation.
The opening menu, which was carefully chosen to be takeout-friendly, reflects the way the Leon family ate while growing up. “We would always eat Chinese food and Peruvian food together, but they were never fusion dishes,” says Humberto. The si yao chicken is a carryover from the original restaurant; its sauce comes from Wendy’s hometown. “It’s a very classic Chinese dish served at room temperature,” says Humberto. “It’s different than what most people expect, but it’s delicious that way so the chicken doesn’t get overcooked.” The char siu is another dish from the Lima menu. Liu updated the preparation to eliminate artificial colors and finishes the pork ribs on a woodfire grill. “It ends with this hickory-smoky taste that you do not get in classic char siu,” Humberto says.
Known for savvy collaborations throughout his fashion career, including ones with Birkenstock, Disney, and even Yoko Ono, Humberto has brought the same keen eye to Chifa. The Chinese sausages found in the sticky rice are locally made by Butcher Girls, while LA-based jelly cakes purveyor Nunchi dreamed up the almond jelly dessert. Humberto traveled to Hong Kong to learn how to brew hand-pulled milk tea and lemon iced tea, declaring himself Chifa’s unofficial beverage director. He’s also proud of the chicha morada, a refreshing Peruvian drink sweetened with pineapples and fortified with warm spices like cinnamon and cloves. A full bar is slated for the near future.
Those who come into Chifa to pick up food will notice the sumptuous, fully decked-out dining room that Humberto designed with his friend and architect Michael Loverich, complete with green velvet T-back chairs, scallop-edged tabletops, and dizzying dual-toned wallpaper. Artist Charlie Mai contributed a sculpture exhibition of found Asian figurines entitled “It Came from the Surface,” adding a pop of whimsy to the room. “I want people to imagine what it will look like and feel like if you were eating in the space and to be able to bring that experience back home,” he says. “I really want people to walk away with a feeling. Those are the kind of little nuances that I feel are really important.”
While dining on-site isn’t possible right now due to state- and citywide efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19, Chifa is open for takeout on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Humberto can often be found taking phone orders while his partner helps with service. A niece plays hostess and a nephew expedites. A cousin is likely making drinks throughout the evening. At Chifa, it’s truly a family affair.
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