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The Quest for the Ordinary, Peruvian in San Diego, California

Peruvian food should take its place in the hearts of gourmands in the United States and Europe as well as in the ultimate manifestation of achieving the status of global ordinary, strip malls.

At least this is the dream of Gastón Acurio Perú’s much recognized celebrity chef and voice of a surging national cuisine. His dream is built on three legs: widespread international fame of Peruvian cuisine at the highest levels, the growth of fine restaurants offering Peruvian food, and the development of omnipresence as a basic food, such as is claimed by other major, ethic cuisines. The first two have been accomplished but the last not so much, yet.

A recent visit to San Diego, California shows the state of this dream.

A sprawling military city at California’s southern end, where it abuts Mexico, San Diego is one of the Pacific State’s important cities, although it is dwarfed by the power and majesty of its neighbor Los Angeles and the behemoth of the north, the Bay Area of San Francisco.

The other two cities have significant Peruvian populations which make California the state with the third largest number of Peruvians in the United States. San Diego does not claim a significant quantity of people from Peru, nevertheless, a Peruvian was one of the major Spanish Dons of the place when it was still Mexican and played a role in its passing to the United States.

San Diego Peruvian, Juan Bandini
San Diego Peruvian, Juan Bandini

San Diego claimed an important Franciscan Mission and a Presidio (a fort).  Both were critical in the expanding EuroAmerican economies. A Peruvian-born Spaniard, Juan Bandini was drawn to settle there and helped transfer San Diego to the United States. The roots from Peru run deep in this mediterranean strip between sea and desert, even if they are scattered and thin at the moment.

It is not the presence today of Peruvian Dons that keeps the roots alive, but restaurants and dance. A Google search for Peruvian and San Diego turns up listings for food and critiques of restaurants, as well as a panorama of Peruvian salsa and folkloric dance.

A closer look shows how thin the offering is. Most of the restaurants offering Peruvian food are more general Latino, as is the small grocery store with Peruvian food near Old Town (Andres Latin Market) Similarly, the dance is Peruvian and Colombian, not just Peruvian.

The Peruvian community does have an organization centered on building a Peruvian Casa in San Diego’s extensive Balboa Park and on offering an annual festival of Peruvian identity.

The one standout that, in its way, is as significant as Mr. Bandini, né Señor Bandini,  is a restaurant in a strip mall on the north end of San Diego. Called Nazca Grill (4310 Genesee) it is an emblem of the hope for Peruvian food.

Like pagoda does for East Asian cuisine, Japanese or Chinese, its name encompasses something you see in many Peruvian restaurants, an attempt to bring together symbols that grant importance to Peru, in this case, with ideas that are widely grasped by outsiders who may have been to Peru as tourists or who have heard of its wonders. As a result, many restaurants in the US and elsewhere claim Machu Picchu, one of the wonders of the tourist world, and this one claims the Nazca lines near Peru’s south coast.

Peruvian Food in Andres Latin Market (David Knowlton)
Peruvian Food in Andres Latin Market (David Knowlton)

Mysterious and endlessly important for those who wish to see a past for Peru that is unusually grand, the Nazca lines give allure and weight. But, like mid-end tourism, it is does so in a space of the ordinary American suburb.

The grandeur of Nazca with images engraved in the desert and only truly visible from the air, comes to ground in an America between a check cashing office and a florist, across from a Thai Restaurant on Genesee Ave, named with  appropriate suburban grandiloquence. This is the new ordinary of American life and dreams.

But notice, Nazca Grill, with its specials of lomo saltado, has not completely arrived.  It is not yet squeezed as franchise between a Taco Bell, or its latest iterations, and an In and Out Burger. It is still slightly side stage.

Kababs, whether Greek, Arab, or Turkish are making that entry, but Peruvian still has a ways to go before it can claim complete, American ordinariness.

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