By Harrison Liao
It’s no “fu fu restaurant.” That’s the first thing Cesar Izquierdo tells you about his restaurant, Taste of Peru in Rogers Park.
Irene Ulbrich, owner of Caleo Cafe in Angola, Indiana, and a Peruvian native that frequents Cesar’s restaurant when she visits Chicago, says it’s what makes Taste of Peru so special.
“Other Peruvian restaurants serve these really pretty, very yummy dishes, but the Peruvian food I grew up with is like what Taste of Peru serves,” she says. “A plate full of food and flavor. Lots of food.”
One could describe both Cesar’s food and the man himself that way, generous in portion and in spirit. He cuts no corners, no matter the cost. “I serve corvina,” he says proudly. “It’s a Peruvian sea bass. My fish is actually fresh. I pay a lot more, and I don’t make that much money because of that, but I enjoy seeing my customers happy.”
Among the first things you might notice about Cesar is his stature. At 6-foot-4 with wide shoulders and a sloping back, you get the sense that, if he could stand up straight, he might be taller than the entire strip mall Taste of Peru is nested in.
But the years have taken a toll on him. Cesar fought through throat cancer. He recently had a chunk of tissue removed from his right bicep. So, when he says all these things, you get the sense that he really has paid a lot more to make himself and his customers happy.
For patrons like Ulbrich, it makes her feel at home.
“The way he does things, you know, he picks up your plate, he asks if you like your food, those little interactions reminds me of when you go to a restaurant in Peru,” she says. “If the owner is there, the owner is interacting with the customers, and I really like that about him.”
It’s no wonder that Guy Fieri, when filming for “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” in 2009, said Taste of Peru was his most memorable stop in Chicago. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, which Cesar is quite proud of, Fieri talked about how Taste of Peru is as memorable for its founder as it is for its food.
“Gun to your head: Where do you go in Chicago?” the Tribune’s Kevin Pang asked Fieri.
“We filmed at a crazy place that has still stuck in my mind: Taste of Peru. Papa rellena, lomo saltado … brother, I’m getting goose bumps talking about it. (Owner) Cesar (Izquierdo) is one of the neatest guys you’ll ever meet. Tell me you don’t just wanna give the guy a high-five.,” Pang told the Tribune.
Cesar’s fare is indisputaby pastoral, a perfect snapshot of the old-school, Peruvian way of making food. His recipes are all passed down from his late mother, who taught him how to cook. The lomo saltado, a traditional Peruvian stir-fry dish consisting of sirloin, onions, tomatoes, rice and French fries mixed in, is rustic to the point of sensory evocation. One bite brings the mind back to a time and place it’s probably never been before. Nostalgia is a taste, too, it turns out, and it’s seared into every fiber of Cesar’s steak, encrusted in every bite of papas rellena, a Peruvian croquette, and tossed in every morsel of his ceviche.
Cesar, on the other hand, is inimitable. His path was unorthodox. Opening his own restaurant was never part of the plan, but there never really was a plan at all.
In the 1980s, a few years after Cesar moved to the United States from Peru, he fell into a life revolvng around martial arts. Strangely, that’s what led him to open Taste of Peru.
He used to train with Fred Dagerberg, one of Chicago’s most established martial arts instructors, and admits it took him a whole year to get his white belt. But Cesar impressed Dagerberg.
“I wasn’t even a yellow belt, and I was taking his brown belts and dropping them on the floor with Peruvian street moves,” Cesar says.
Eventually, he found himself in Dagerberg’s inner circle. “Fred used to take me and the other students out to eat, to every type of restaurant,” Cesar remembers. “Thai restaurants, Chinese restaurants, Japanese restaurants, German restaurants, Greek restaurants, everywhere. Then, I asked him: “Have you ever had Peruvian food?””
“Finally, I get him to eat Peruvian food. And, right away, it became his favorite,” Cesar says. “He ordered everything.”
One night some 30 years ago, they found a Peruvian restaurant with Dagerberg and some other students, along with Bruce Lee’s son Brandon, who was training and shooting in Chicago for the movie The Crow (during which he was tragically killed on set).
“Before he passed, we had Brandon Lee come over to the martial arts school Fred was running to train for his movie scenes,” Cesar says. “We took everyone out to dinner after a seminar, to this Peruvian restaurant. And we had about 40 guys, you know, a lot of them were not just police officers, but state troopers, lieutenants, FBI agents. All these guys wanted to do seminars with martial artists. At the end of the meal, Fred grabbed a napkin — we had ordered so much beer that no one was keeping (close) count — and he tells the owner of the place, “No, this is wrong. You charged us $500 more than we ordered.” The guy goes, “You don’t want to pay? I’ll call the cops.” And everyone pulls out their badge.”
Cesar says there was some jostling before the owner, who tried to pass the mistake for the check onto his wait staff, finally relented.
“Anyways, we take Brandon out after that. It’s about 3:30 in the morning,” Cesar recalls. “And I get a call from Fred Dagerberg. He goes, ‘Cesar. We have three students with food poisoning.’
“I’m thinking, “This can’t be happening right now,” Cesar says. “Everybody that ate that chicken had to go to the emergency room, it was that bad. So, I go back to the restaurant to see what was up. I said, “Listen to me. Not only did you want to rip us off, but now there’s three people in the ER.”
“He’s all mad, like, ‘Oh, you’re trying to take my money from me mother****er!’” Cesar says. “So, I start going off on him, and I tell him, ‘One day, I will open my restaurant. And I will take all these customers that have come to your restaurant. I will take them away from you. Mark my words.’”
He opened Tast of Peru in 1998 and now, more than 30 years later, it has a litany of favorable reviews from the Chicago Reader, Chicago Tribune, Food Network and, of course, Guy Fieri.
But if you get the chance to meet him, one of the lasting things you might remember about Cesar is that he doesn’t have much use for material success. His restaurant is doing well. His food is exquisite. He’s well-liked in Rogers Park, where he’s lived for decades now. And yet the only thing that seems to matter to him are the memories he’s forged along the way.
When you share a meal with Cesar, he will intermittently pull out his phone to show you pictures of all the people he’s met at Taste of Peru – Jiu Jitsu champion Robson Moura; martial artist pioneer Benny “The Jet” Urquidez; four-time NBA champion and former Chicago Bull Horace Grant, who asked Cesar if he could “bring the boys to the restaurant next time,” meaning, of course, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoc and the other Bulls.
Cesar Izquierdo has nothing to prove. He does not show you pictures or rehash old stories out of vanity. He is relentlessly and unapologetically proud of all the life he has lived, and where his restaurant is today. And you can taste that in his food. You can see it in the way he treats his guests and his staff (many of which are family). It’s all on display the moment you step through his doors: Hardly an inch of wall space, adorned with maps of Peru and photographs honoring people from Cesar’s past, is bare at Taste of Peru.
This is no fu-fu restaurant. Because Cesar is no fu-fu man.