Avenida Peru dishes
Clockwise from left: lomo saltado, ají de gallina, ceviche carretillero, chaufa criollo; drinks, from left: chicha morada and Inca Cola Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

Karlo Caceres and his mother, Cecilia Descalzi, threw out the couch in the living room of their tiny two-bedroom Jefferson Park apartment. They replaced it with foldable tables stacked with aluminum trays and plastic carryout containers and bags. This is where they staged the pickup and delivery meals Caceres advertised each week on Facebook under the name Avenida Peru. In the adjoining kitchen they brought in a second oven range, two blenders, two deep fryers, and four small woks where they prepared iconic Peruvian dishes like lomo saltado, ceviche, and papas a la huancaína, but also regional rarities like rocoto relleno—spicy red peppers stuffed with minced beef from the Andean city of Arequipa, Cecilia’s hometown.

“It was like a restaurant in an apartment,” says Caceres. If the people placing orders for his Lima-style street food and comida criolla thought he was cooking in an established brick-and-mortar, he didn’t explicitly discourage them. “I would just cook a dish and take a picture as good as possible and show people what I was gonna offer,” he says. “I had to tell them something: ‘My idea was to open a restaurant, but because of the pandemic I ended up having nothing.’ I told them, like, ‘This is restaurant-quality food but made from home.’”

It wasn’t too far from the truth. It was March 2020, and he’d just lost his server job of about five years at Basilico Ristorante in Norridge. But like so many suddenly unemployed hospitality workers, he launched his own operations in the semi-underground.

Caceres, who is 38, always wanted to own a restaurant, but until the pandemic the closest he’d come was working front-of-the-house jobs. His family emigrated to Lima from southern Peru in the 60s and 70s, and that’s where he grew up, feasting on the city’s abundant street food and his grandmother’s home cooking. “I was raised by my grandma because my mom was working,” he says. “She would take me to the street market every day. Because she was my best friend, I used to help her cook.”

Owner/chef Karlo Caceres, Avenida Peru restaurant
Avenida Peru owner Karlo Caceres Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

He was studying hospitality in Lima when his family convinced him his best opportunities were in the States. He settled first in Chandler, Arizona, in 2004 and started frying wings at Pizza Hut. But he hated the weather, so he moved here two years later, when his culinary career was derailed by the necessity of taking a job at an auto parts store. Enrolling in culinary school at Triton College proved to be another false start—he couldn’t afford tuition and rent, but he did find some stability at Al’s Beef in Niles, where he worked for seven years as a cashier, occasionally making deliveries and helping out in the kitchen until he landed at Basilico, which at the time he considered a “dream job,” he says. “I always liked talking to people. I knew if I got the chance to work with customers face-to-face my ability to talk to them would give me more income.”

Cooking out of the apartment was his girlfriend’s idea, but in the pandemic’s first spring he still wasn’t even sure they’d make it. From word of mouth and posting on expat Facebook groups he’d built a steady flow of pickup and delivery orders each day. Neighbors attracted by the aromas became regulars too. That he was cooking with his mom didn’t hurt either, and he turned his limitations into assets. “People would call me the same day they wanted a dish. I had to tell them, ‘I don’t cook in quantity. I just cook at the moment,’ and they were impressed. They would give me another chance. People started learning my way of working and I would have orders every day. The second month there were like seven cars outside every day, stopping and waiting for this food. We needed extra help for the deliveries.”

While the money was good it wasn’t great, and by July, as more restaurants began reopening, Caceres started worrying that it wasn’t going to be good much longer. He thought he’d need to look for a straight job, but almost in defiance of his doubts, fortune kept pushing him toward a brick-and-mortar. Knowing he likely couldn’t afford it, he nevertheless called the number in the window of a small vacant space near Central and Belmont. Despite his misgivings, the landlord—the owner of neighboring Central Gyros—almost made it impossible to pass up once he heard Caceres held down a job for so long at Al’s, where he was pals with the owner.

Caceres and his girlfriend, Glenda Lopez, opened Avenida Peru in December 2020 without a website or service ware. More than a year later there’s still minimal online presence, but Caceres’s commitment to detail supersedes most other Peruvian restaurants in town. It’s only grown his organic, word-of-mouth following (I learned about it through the indefatigable Titus Ruscitti).

First, the fries that come with salchipapas and lomo saltado are hand-cut, thick, and crispy, which takes simple hot dogs and spuds to another level. He uses tenderloin for the latter dish; the smoke that adhered to his home kitchen ceiling is much more manageable with a professional exhaust, but the proverbial breath-of-the-wok that typifies this Chinese-style stir fry sings through the rich brown sauce. The handful of ceviches cooked in the citric “tiger’s milk” are focused on corvina rather than the typical tilapia. The ceviche carretillero in particular is an iconic street food of crispy, hot, deep-fried calamari, cool silky fish, and the textural corny contrast of mote, or hominy, and crunchy toasted chulpe (like supersized corn nuts).

Cold slices of potato bathed in creamy ají amarillo pepper sauce accompany each pesto pasta-steak combo but really come into clarity with the ají de gallina, shredded chicken smothered in the smooth creamy sauce, enriched with milk and thickened with crackers. For this, Caceres uses the more expensive frozen Peruvian peppers rather than preservative-spiked pastes.

The thoughtful execution of these dishes alone would be enough for Avenida to stand out, but it has another unique thing going for it. On Saturday and Sunday mornings from 9 to 11:30 AM, Avenida operates as a sanguchería, with a lineup of common Peruvian breakfast sandwiches that aren’t common here at all. He outsourced a bakery to duplicate the bolillo-like Lima-style pan frances in which he swaddles thick slices of pork belly or blood sausage seasoned with ají amarillo and huacatay, or black mint, atop layers of fried sweet potato, with a nest of shredded salsa criolla, or lime-pickled red onion, to cut the richness. There’s a tenderloin sandwich and shredded chicken as well, and occasionally butifarra, the brined fresh Peruvian country ham whose labor intensivity makes it more of rarity. “When I have it nobody orders it,” he says. “When I don’t have it everybody starts talking about it.” 

Lopez quit her job to manage the front of the house while Caceres cooks. Bring your own pisco and she’ll shake you up a sour, unless you’re in the mood for the housemade passion fruit juice or sweet purple-corn-based chicha morada. Meanwhile, as the seasons change Caceres is planning to broaden his Lima focus with more uncommon regional specials. Look for olluquito con carne, made with a shredded dried Andean tuber; or carapulcra, a porky potato-peanut stew; and the promising ceviches de concha negras, made with inky black clams. “It’s expensive, but people like it,” says Caceres.

Avenida Peru
3131 N. Central