Mention the song “José Antonio” to a Peruvian, and it’s likely to evoke images of Peru’s Spanish and equestrian roots.
Sung by the 20th century singer Chabuca Granda, the famous ballad expresses a woman’s longing for an elegant horseman wearing a white linen poncho. Jose Antonio, the namesake Chatsworth restaurant opened by José Pepe León, likewise showcases Peruvian culture. But uniquely, it opens a window into Peru’s and León’s multicultural origins.
“It is fusion food. Chinese the Spanish way,” said León, a 65-year-old Peruvian immigrant whose wavy salt-and-pepper hair, light brown complexion and Peruvian accent don’t readily reveal his Chinese ancestry. “We have our Chinese side and we have our Spanish side,” he explained while gesturing with his hands to the different sections of José Antonio’s menu.
Peru’s culture reflects its people’s Amerindian, European, mestizo, African and Asian ancestries. León’s maternal grandfather, José Wo San San, emigrated from China’s southern Guangdong Province to Peru in the 1890s. He married a Peruvian woman and, according to León, opened Peru’s first Chinese restaurant north of Lima. León’s paternal ancestry is Spanish-Peruvian.
When he opened Jose Antonio in 2004, León decided his restaurant, located in a small strip mall at 20951 Devonshire St., would serve the Peruvian dishes his maternal grandmother and mother grew up with while sharing the cuisine his grandfather long ago introduced to Peruvians. “Chifa,” as Peruvian-Chinese cuisine is known, utilizes Chinese cooking techniques and ingredients like stir-frying and soy sauce, while taking advantage of local flavorings and produce. Unlike the Cantonese food that inspired it, chifa tends to be spicier and saucier, and relies more on seafood and less on vegetables.
To navigate the intricacies of Peruvian and Chinese cuisines, León entrusts José Choy, his 44-year-old Peruvian cook and a former owner of a chifa restaurant in Lima, who was raised in both cultures. Born to a Peruvian mother, Choy’s almond-shaped eyes reveal his Chinese-born father’s ancestry.
Jose Antonio’s offerings take diners on a bicultural, transcontinental culinary journey. Dinner might start with a tangy Peruvian ceviche and Chinese wonton soup; move on to main courses of “lomo saltado” (top sirloin), “cau cau” (potatoes), Cantonese-inspired “chancho con piña” (roasted pork with pineapple), “tallarin saltado de carne” (beef chow mein), and “arroz chaufa mariscos” (seafood fried rice); and finish with South American “alfajores” cookies.
Defying easy classification, Jose Antonio’s menu is a metaphor for Peru’s multicultural fabric. The ease with which cultures have mixed in Peru during the last century, according to León, has been critical to Chinese-Peruvians’ survival and the birth of Peruvian-style Chinese cuisine.
“The Chinese community started integrating in the 1950s, going to schools, getting friends,” León said. “For Chinese in the beginning, it was different. They would congregate.”
In the early days, prejudice against Chinese was common. The first Chinese immigrants arrived in Peru in the 1850s as indentured servants. Because of restrictive immigration laws, Chinese women did not immigrate. Integration was essential to the virtually all-male community.
“There was a lot of marriage between Peruvians and Chinese,” said León.
It continues today. León and Choy are married to Peruvians with no Chinese ancestry. The two cultures, they believe, are complementary.
For first-time diner Carlos Díaz, a 44-year-old Canoga Park resident originally from Lima, eating arroz con pollo for lunch at a chifa restaurant is unremarkable. It’s a reflection of Chinese culture’s prominence in Peru’s national fabric. While he didn’t order chifa and doesn’t have Chinese ancestry, Díaz explained in Spanish that as a child he attended a Chinese-run school.
The melding of Peruvian and Chinese cultures has, León believes, produced something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s quintessentially Peruvian.
“Chifa is better. The food people eat at home in China is not that tasty,” León said. “Everything grown in Peru is delicious. We are one of the best five foods in the world.”
Mention chifa to a Peruvian, and he or she may long for home and Jose Antonio, the restaurant, not the horseman.