1975 was a big year for Wendy Leon. First, she and her husband welcomed a son, Humberto. Second, she opened her first restaurant, Chifa, in Lima, Peru. Chifa, which roughly translates to “Chinese restaurant” in Spanish, is also a term used to describe Cantonese-Peruvian cuisine. Wendy, who had recently moved to Peru from China’s Tongshan County, served spare ribs and dan dan mian (noodles with spicy Szechuan sauce) among other original recipes.
A fews years later, however, the young family got the chance to move to America. There was never a question over whether they’d pack their bags. Wendy, who only received a second grade education, knew it would give her children opportunities she never had. But when that door opened, Chifa’s had to close. The Leons resettled in Eagle Rock, California, where Wendy got a job as a cafeteria worker.
Time progressed, and Wendy was eventually able to open a dim sum place when her children reached high school. Then the Leon kids graduated, moved out, and made names for themselves. Big ones, at that: Humberto, for one, went on to found Opening Ceremony, and then became the co-creative director of Kenzo. But now, 45 years later, they’re ready to look back at the past, and help their mom re-achieve the dream she gave up to chase the American one.
On Friday, November 27, Chifa 國偉 opens in Eagle Rock. It’s a family business in every sense: the CEO is Humberto’s sister, Ricardina Leon, and her husband John Liu is the executive chef. Humberto serves as chief marketing officer (also, the Chinese characters at the end of the restaurant’s moniker are his Chinese name). Meanwhile, Wendy, or “Popo” as her children call her, is the muse behind it all—most of Chifa’s recipes come from her extensive culinary repertoire, and some even served at her original haunt. Many dishes come with Wendy’s own sauce recipes, and there’s pollo alla brasa (wood-fire grilled chicken with spicy aji sauce) along with lai cha floats (Hong-Kong Style milk tea with a scoop of ice cream) for dessert. French fries come with scallions and Serrano. Whereas the former Chifa served Chinese Peruvian cuisine, Chifa 2.0 has a new ethnic addendum: American—reflecting this new generation of Leons. “It’s not fusion in the sense that the dishes are mixed,” Humberto tells Vogue. “We’re serving Peruvian dishes that my mom loved as well as the home-cooked Chinese meals we ate growing up. Then, we played with those and made it exciting.”
Chifa will also have a hearty dose of rotating specials that depend on extraneous factors like the weather. There will be seasonal greens and soups based on the temperature. Air quality also comes into play: “If there’s a lot of pollen in the air, my mom will consider what’s good for inflammation,” explains Humberto. “There will be an Eastern type of thinking with the menu.”
Right now, Los Angeles restaurants are closed for in-person dining. (When Chifa opens on Friday, it will be for takeout only.) However, when patrons are allowed inside, they’ll be greeted with an abundance of green, which is considered a prosperous color in China. “We added some pink and gold too,” Humberto says. “It reminded me of these classic Chinese bakeries that always had a lot of joy in them.”
The walls are adorned in wallpaper he designed for Calico, with a pattern mimicking that of an intricate piece of wood. The chairs are in the shape of big, puffy hearts, and the marble tables are cut so they have textured edges. Humberto, whose always admired the visual work of Blade Runner’s Syd Mead, considers it a retro-future vibe: “I wanted it to be an environment that you could really experience. It feels like you’re in the future, but it could also feel like you’re in the seventies or eighties.”
Despite the high-style design, Humberto is insistent on one thing: this isn’t meant to be a fancy restaurant. “It’s meant to be easy, understandable, and a juxtaposition between our Peruvian and Chinese heritage. These are dishes we’ve passed from generation to generation—this food, this experience, comes from my family and our hearts.”