Chifa Chinese and Peruvian restaurant: Come for the food, feast on the look
Humberto Leon, cofounder of the cult fashion brand Opening Ceremony, has opened an Eagle Rock restaurant with his family — yes in the middle of a pandemic — that pairs the family’s take on Chinese and Peruvian cuisine with his stylistic flair and love of collaboration.
The result? A jewel box of a space that aims to fill your belly, capture your heart and delight your eyes even if, at least for now, that means peering through a heart-shaped window when you stop by to pick up your takeout order.
In traditional kitchens, it’s long been accepted that whatever cooks create there belongs to the restaurant and its chef. Some are challenging that.
Chifa (the Peruvian word for a Chinese restaurant) is a reboot and reimagining — 45 years later — of the restaurant Leon’s mother, Wendy Leon, opened in Lima, Peru, before the family immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Eagle Rock.
Wendy has long been part of her son’s fashion-focused world, cooking for Opening Ceremony events and appearing in an ad campaign for his luxury label, Kenzo. She’s back in the kitchen, serving as inspirational leader, fount of culinary knowledge and teller of family tales. Her daughter, Ricardina “Rica” Leon, is Chifa’s chief executive and chief operating officer, and Rica’s husband, John Liu, is the restaurant’s executive chef.
“When I opened my first Chifa, [Humberto] was very little, maybe 4 months old,” Wendy said. “I had to take him to work, so I carried him on my back to cook and then he would sleep in the storage room on the 100-pound bags of rice.”
Today, the infant who once slumbered on bags of rice is the 45-year-old chief marketing officer of a family-owned and -operated restaurant that’s been four years in the making. Chifa officially opened for business on Nov. 27 — just two days after Los Angeles County shut down outdoor dining in response to rising COVID-19 cases.
This year’s guide and launch event are presented by City National Bank
During the restaurant’s soft opening the week before, the family served diners in a tented parking-lot space that could accommodate up to 40. Until outdoor-dining restrictions are lifted, Chifa’s food (and merch) will be available only on a takeout basis — a challenge the family had anticipated.
“We did this fully knowing that the chances of outdoor dining being shut down was high,” Rica said. “That’s why Humberto and [Humberto’s partner] Patrick are servers and my son is [bussing tables]. We didn’t hire anyone [outside the family] to work front of the house so we could fully staff the kitchen and not have to lay anyone off.”
“We can all pivot to any position,” Humberto added. “John and Rica’s son that’s a busser is also fully trained in dishwashing and preparing takeout orders, and their 24-year-old son is the kitchen expo, but he can also be a waiter.
“In many ways, I feel like [we] opened at the perfect time because we had the experience of the pandemic happening [while we were planning], and we’ve been able to create a flexible model that can work.”
Another part of their plan to wait out the pandemic is to make sure the restaurant’s dining room looks and feels customer-ready at all times to passersby and people popping in to pick up to-go orders. “We were really insistent [it look that way],” Humberto said. “Right now when you go to a restaurant the tables are all flipped and the chairs are all piled up like it’s a storage room. I want it to kind of be a museum that you could walk into and imagine what it could be like to be sitting — and eating — in that space next year. I think that’s an optimistic approach.”
That might sound like a head-scratching strategy — unless you’ve actually looked through that Instagram-worthy, heart-shaped window and laid eyes on the interior of Chifa. Humberto worked with architect Michael Loverich to create a joyful blend of old-school and modern, melding the nostalgia of an ’80s-era Chinese restaurant with a 21st century dash of forward-looking flair in a space bursting with color, pattern, whimsy and optimism.
For inspiration, Humberto looked to two of his icons, film director Wong Kar-wai and industrial designer Syd Mead. “I feel Wong Kar-wai was always really good about balancing the traditional and the modern; [making] movies that are both futuristic but also [about] history. ... Syd Mead lived in Pasadena next to my mom — I got a chance to work with him, and I’ve been to his house — he was the ultimate futurist. He did ‘Blade Runner,’ he did ‘Tron,’ he drew cars for the future that are still too futuristic for today. I like that kind of optimism, that way of looking at life.”
The embrace of color, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Humberto’s work in the fashion space, comes from a Cantonese phrase his mother would use when he was growing up. “It translates as ‘Wear this color, it will steal people’s eyes,’” he said. “I’ve always kept that in mind, and I think it’s why a lot of my work is about color.”
And the 500-square-foot, 48-seat dining room of Chifa is overflowing with eye-stealing color. The banquette and heart-shaped, T-back chairs are upholstered in forest green velvet. Scallop-edged tables are speckled pistachio green and white. A mint-colored terrazzo floor is inlaid with eight Valentine-worthy pink hearts and the walls are papered in a green and black pattern that’s part zebra stripe and part wood grain.
“It’s called Heartwood,” Humberto said of the wallpaper pattern. “It’s a collaboration with Calico Wallpaper, and people can actually buy it.” Collaborating with likeminded brands has been an integral part of the Opening Ceremony story from the brand’s beginning as a single retail store in New York City in 2002 (Humberto describes himself as “the original crazy collaborator”), and Chifa continues that tradition with a deep bench of collaborations both on and off the menu.
Edible collaborations include tapping New York-based Butcher Girls for a cured lap cheung sausage, slivers of which frolic in Chifa’s wok-tossed Chinese vegetables dish. The family sourced teas from Silk & Jade and hired fellow Eagle Rock creative Nünchi (the nom de cuisine of Lexie Park, who once worked as an Opening Ceremony sales associate) to create a dessert that’s almost too beautiful to eat — a pale lavender almond-jelly food sculpture shaped like an ear of corn and surrounded by a syrup flavored like the Peruvian chicha morada purple-corn-based drink.
Leon sought out New York-based Izabel Lam to craft the restaurant’s gold-colored, curvaceous cutlery. He went to Cazahana for the dishes and Highland Park ceramist Linda Hsiao of Knotwork L.A. to make eagle-shaped (a nod to Eagle Rock) pitchers and creamers that line the divider between the dining room and an open kitchen of about the same size. Like the wallpaper, pieces from the Knotwork L.A. collaboration are for sale, as are Chifa logo T-shirts and a hoodie designed by Humberto. (He also designed the east-meets-west denim waitstaff uniforms, the centerpiece of which is a barn jacket silhouette with Chinese knot buttons.)
On the divider between kitchen and dining room you’ll see vintage Chinese figurines, variously squatting, gesturing and raising swords, all repainted so they appear to be wearing high-end luxury labels including Prada, Gucci, Burberry and Dries Van Noten. It’s an art installation titled “It Came From the Surface” by artist Charlie Mai, and the high-fashion meets traditional Chinese culture vibe of the pieces (which are also for sale) fits the feel of the space perfectly.
While Humberto may be responsible for the look and feel of the space, the food coming out of the kitchen is a full-on family affair. The menu features comfort-food tweaks on traditional Chinese and Peruvian dishes that have long been a part of the Leon and Liu families’ shared culinary history.
“It sounds like we’re doing a fusion of the two but we’re not,’ Humberto said. “The dishes are all individually Peruvian, Cantonese or Taiwanese.”
Among them are a poached chicken dish — served at room temperature — from a jealously guarded family recipe. “We make a special sauce with soy sauce and 100 chickens and the flavor is always there,” Wendy said, likening it to a sourdough starter that keeps getting added to over time. She estimates the Si Yao chicken on offer at Chifa today has been deepening its flavor profile for about two years. “By now it probably has the flavor of 500 or maybe even 1,000 chickens,” she said.
The family matriarch is also the source of the restaurant’s “wellness soups,” offered as specials, that are based on the precepts of traditional Chinese medicine.
Other dishes on the menu include pollo a la brasa (cooked over the kitchen’s wood-fired grill), anticucho (Peruvian-style skewered beef heart), zongzi (sticky rice dumplings) and Chinese fries, double-fried french fries with a pepper, scallion and serrano chile seasoning inspired by a family black pepper shrimp dish.
Liu’s branch of the family tree is the source of two dishes; dan dan mian and a beef noodle soup that’s been slow-cooked for three days. “My dad gave me those two noodle recipes when I was in college, and I would make them for all of my roommates.” Liu said. “They were so popular I told him we should sell them, but he was really traditional and said: ‘No, no, no, you’re not selling noodles.’ Fast-forward 30 years — and I’m selling noodles.”
Even though Humberto and Carol Lim ended an eight-year run as cocreative directors of the LVMH-owned label Kenzo in 2019 and sold the Opening Ceremony label to Milan-based New Guards Group in January, Humberto‘s new culinary adventure with his family doesn’t mean he’s completely left the fashion world behind. He said he and Lim are still designing for Opening Ceremony and are working on the fall 2021 collection.
“I can’t give it away but I can give you a hint,” Humberto said of the inspiration. “It’s based on interiors; basically the whole idea of everyone being locked down during COVID and taking inspiration from the things around you. I’ve been stuck in this world so it might have its own kind of natural progression into the collection.”
Chifa, 4374 Eagle Rock Blvd., Los Angeles, is open for takeout 4 to 9 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Menu and additional information at chifa-la.com, (323) 561-3084.
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