Restaurants, Travel

California’s Own “Cholo Soy”

Northern Peru Style Chicken

The name called me. It’s puckishness struck me and reeled me in on a street in California no less. Despite the randomness of that decision I am glad I went.

There are many other Peruvian restaurants in San Francisco; this city has a long and historical connection with Peru and the Pacific coast of South America, far beyond what most people know or think. Its ordinary and powerful Anglos like to have the option of fine Peruvian cuisine and this motivated Gaston Acurio to place one of his first La Mar restaurants here when he expanded outside of Peru.

It occupies a nice place in the Embarcadero development, the old piers and warehouses from which ferries still depart and which became an attractive bay-side development some time ago. La Mar is an established feature of San Francisco.

However, the slickness of Acurio’s marketing savvy and the promotion of Peruvian cuisine by both private entrepreneurs, such as Acurio, and the Peruvian government are not enough to explain the demand for Peruvian cuisine in this peninsular, Pacific city.

Instead, we must look to demand from local Peruvians. According to 2006 data from the US Census there are more than 25,000 Peruvians in the Bay area and they want to eat their national food. Unlike the Chinese, another Pacific people with a long history in the area, the Peruvians do not have their own neighborhood and lived scattered around the bay.  Their restaurants, however, are concentrated in the area near the Dolores Mission, the old Spanish settlement of Yerba Buena, where they share symbolic space with other Latin Americans and Latino Californians.

New Jersey and Miami compete as centers for Peruvian migration, but San Francisco is unique because of its history. From the days of the Spanish colonies–if not earlier–there was an interconnection between this enormous bay and the ancient, desert domain of Peru.

Benches Waiting for You at Cholo Soy
Benches Waiting for You at Cholo Soy

What was the restaurant’s name that I found so attractive?  It was Cholo Soy which simply means I am a cholo.

The name does not just belong to this restaurant, it most immediately is the title of a popular song and a turning around of stigma by claiming an insulting term and giving it a positive spin in a so-what of pride.

Composed by Luís Abanto Morales, a crooner from Peru’s north, the song keeps finding life as a call by Peru’s ordinary people, especially its urban working classes, to be taken seriously and to be accepted as real and legitimate in a country still dominated by its Euro-Peruvian citizens and their logic.

In another connection between California and Peru, this term is also a claim to pride in the face of rejection by California’s mass of working-class Chicanos and other Latinos, whether in Los Angeles, San Jose, or in San Francisco.

The claim to being a Cholo, then, is a strong cry of pride. It claims Peruvian identity in a strange, yet familiar, land and not just any Peruvian identity. This is not the identity of Gaston Acurio on the upscale Embarcadero. It is the identity of the majority of Indigenous heritage, the working class, the poor, the ignored.

In California, it is also the identity of Latinos, whatever their national origin in a place which lumps all Indo-Mestizos in a common term. In the Gold Rush days it was as Mexicans (or as Chileans (when it served the invading Anglos who wished to declare foreigners and hence drive from this rich land all Spanish-speaking peoples who could not buy or marry their way into Anglo-dom.)

Admiring the pluck and pride, I went there for lunch on a Saturday afternoon when I was just off the plane from Cusco.

The Mission is a rough area, a combat zone of gentrification and street crime, yet it is filled with street murals and pride. The street called Mission is the focus, though the Dolores Mission is a few blocks off it. A barrio with Latino poets and writers, artists, activists, and workers, the area is increasingly under pressure from the up-scale tech workers who have already claimed Valencia street.

Art on the Wall by Cholo Soy
Art on the Wall by Cholo Soy

Cholo Soy, the restaurant, is a counter and a scant few metal-clad tables, as if a stand in any of Peru’s markets. It is unpretentious and easy to not see. Outside you will just see a folding sign that in faded colors gives the name and the day’s dishes because, like a market stand, this place offers ceviche every day and differing daily specials Monday through Saturday.

This day, they had cabrito norteño, a rich stewed goat dish from northern Peru, and a chicken stewed in a cilantro sauce.

I chose the chicken and within a minute or two, just like in the market, it was on the table, rich and enticing.  The chicken was tender and tasty.  And the sauce…  Filled with the dark savoriness of slow cooked cilantro and flesh it balanced the creamy beans and white rice, filled me with energy, and made me want more.

In sum, if I lived in San Francisco, I would eat here as often as possible. The food is hearty and satisfying, And the name, yes the name, would make my eyes gleam and want to be here just because of its thumb-in-the-eye beauty and pride.

Cholo Soy
Plaza Adelante
2301 Mission St
San Francisco, CA 94110

 

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