Coming from Latin America to the United States can turn you Mexican. At least that’s what happened to me in the eyes of some of my American peers, who are not familiar with my culture. So I really like to teach people about Peru.
Luckily, I’m not alone in this mission.
Standing behind his orange sandwich cart in blue jeans and a Seattle Supersonics cap, Carlo Antonio Chalisea looks like an average young Seattleite. The first time I saw him, I said to myself: “There’s no way this gringo can cook good Peruvian food.” Then, I tasted a sandwich he improvised for me during my vegetarian phase, and discovered I was very wrong about him.
That was in 2013, when his menu was just coming together and Don Lucho’s, his Peruvian sandwich cart, had not quite rolled out of the garage.
Now, as Latin music and conversation fill Hilliard’s Beer, where the cart stops on the weekends, Chalisea applies veggies and meat into a sandwich with the swift ease of a blackjack dealer passing cards at a Vegas casino.
He is surrounded by a crowd of Peruvian customers, who fraternize with Americans and other Latins over beer and good food — just the way Chalisea has always liked it.
Though he was born in Seattle, the 30-year-old son of Peruvian immigrants takes pride in his cultural heritage.
“I grew up very in touch with my Peruvian culture,” he said. “In fact, I learned to speak Spanish before English because my parents would speak Spanish to me all the time. I was four years old when I first visited Peru and I still remember that trip because I experienced an earthquake and got hepatitis.”
Chalisea inherited his cooking skills from his mother, who never made use of guidelines or measurements to put meals together.
“She does everything by taste and by eye,” he says.
Chalisea, who also has a full-time job in construction, also gets his work ethic from his parents.
“My parents didn’t have it easy as immigrants, but they were successful and thrived,” he says. “It should be easier for me. I gotta be successful.”
Chalisea’s customer base is as diverse as the man himself.
“Growing up, I had two groups of friends,” Chalisea tells me as he tidies up his work space for the night. “The Americans and the Latinos.”
He seems proud of the fact that he has a hand in bringing these groups and cultures together.
“In 2008, I took a group of my friends from Seattle with me to Peru. They told me the sandwiches they tried in Lima were better than Paseo’s,” he said.
After a second group of friends told him the same thing a few years later, the seed for this venture was planted in Chalisea’s head.
But this Peruvian street chef is doing more than just preparing delicious sandwiches. Don Lucho’s is spreading knowledge of Peruvian culture throughout the Seattle area.
“Peru is still pretty unknown here,” he says. “Many people don’t know what our food looks like.”
Chalisea aims to be an ambassador of Peruvian food with Don Lucho’s, and one of his biggest aspirations is to encourage culinary tourism from Seattle to Lima.
His sandwiches incorporate the traditional tastes of Peru’s three regions: the coast, the Andes, and the Amazon.
“All these different flavors kick in,” says Erykah McCarthy, a waitress at Hilliard’s Beer.
“My boyfriend is a chef, and when I brought him one of Carlo’s sandwiches, he absolutely loved it— said it was better than Paseo’s.”
McCarthy had never tasted Peruvian food before. She’s definitely a fan of it now.
Peruvians, who can be highly critical about our own food, say they love the sandwiches just as much.
“People who have been to Peru can recognize the flavors of the culture in his sandwiches,” says Gonzalo Chirino, who came from Peru two years ago.
There also is something special about Chalisea himself.
“I met Carlo when I was walking down the street,” says Marco Ramos, who has been here for five months. “Within the same day — I kid you not — he invited me over to his house and made me feel like we are old friends.”
Peruvians like Ramos also benefit from the events at Hilliard’s Beer because it helps him connect with other local Peruvians, over sandwiches, cold brews and Latin music. The dates are announced on Don Lucho’s Facebook page.
As of right now, Don Lucho’s food is just part of Chalisea’s full-time mission. When he’s not working, he raps and performs locally, mostly in Spanish.
“I make everyday life music. What I see and what I lived and am living. It’s my therapy and hopefully that inspires people and can get them through tough times,” he says. “Since we’re surrounded by so much negativity, I want to counterbalance that in my music.”
In the not-so-distant future, he sees Don Lucho’s expanding into a bigger food truck and eventually establishing a few restaurants in Seattle and overseas.
“I never had doubts,” he says remembering the start of his journey. “I think the sandwich cart is only the beginning. He’s Luchito, the playful kid.”
“My father’s name is Luis; in Peru we nickname them ‘Lucho’,” Chalisea says. “But the name Don Lucho’s is more than just a tribute to my dad. Lucho in Spanish is a verb that means to fight hard, to struggle for everything you believe in, and that is what I do every day.”