In one of L.A.’s coolest new restaurants, food meets fashion meets family meets art in a setting that feels more like a scene from a vaporwave thriller set in Shanghai than it does a homestyle family operation in the heart of Eagle Rock. But Humberto Leon asks: Why can’t it be both?
We assumed Chifa would be fashionable given the designer cofounded Opening Ceremony—a trendsetting clothing label known for its playful individualism—but his first major foray into the restaurant world wound up building one of the city’s most colorful and unique dining rooms. As soon as indoor service returns to L.A.—Chifa is currently only open for takeout—you’ll be able to sit among plush velvet stools and wavy green-and-white marble tabletops while holding even wavier gold flatware to dig into generational recipes for Chinese, Peruvian and Taiwanese dishes.
In the kitchen whipping up that brûléed char siu and soy-sauce–poached chicken? His mom, “Popo” Wendy Leon, and his brother-in-law, John Liu. Helming the operation as CEO? Humberto’s sister, Ricardina Leon. It’s a full-on family affair and one that’s decades in the making: Popo first opened her own restaurant—also called Chifa—in Lima, Peru, in 1975. It was traditional Cantonese-leaning Chinese food made for Peru’s sizable Chinese population, at least until the Leons immigrated to the U.S. and landed in Highland Park not far from where the family’s new Chifa stands today.
Once here she helped manage her brother’s Chinese restaurants, where Humberto worked from junior high into high school, but her Peruvian recipes were more or less relegated to family dinners—until now.
“Really we’re bringing what we eat as a family to people,” says Humberto, adding, “It’s Peruvian and Chinese, it’s not a fusion. A lot of people don’t realize that Chinese cuisine and Chinese culture is a part of the Peruvian food scene; Chinese ingredients are very much in a lot of classic Peruvian dishes, so to have Peruvian and Chinese food doesn’t seem so crazy.”
The streamlined menu—opened with takeout service in mind—offers a mix-and-match format with ample ode to both cultures, as well as Liu’s Taiwanese heritage. À la carte options include some of the same dishes Popo made at her own restaurant, including that soy sauce chicken as well as a classic char siu and the caramelized braised spare ribs, a breakout hit. Peruvian dishes such as beef heart anticuchos or the plate of pollo a la brasa with French fries and aji sauce mingle alongside Liu’s three-day–braised beef noodle soup and the dan dan mian, both recipes passed down three generations in his own family.
Humberto refers to himself as the unofficial beverage and dessert director, which means he pulls all the milk teas, the lemony tong ling cha, and makes their from-scratch chicha morada, one of Peru’s most iconic drinks, made with purple corn and pineapple. He also orchestrated a dessert collab that sells out within minutes thanks to one of the internet’s favorite new sweets stars: Nünchi’s Lexie Park worked with Humberto at Opening Ceremony, and now she’s forming her pastel and technicolored dream cakes and jellos into a purple corn-shaped, almond-flavored jelly studded with corn kernels along the bottom and drizzled with Humberto’s house-made chicha morada syrup. (Again, place your order right at opening to nab one.)
“It’s so exciting to bring people that I love into it, and we’re all helping each other and doing things together, and it’s just the philosophy I have in life,” says Humberto. “I love supporting other people, I love supporting local people, so it’s exciting to have a place and a vehicle to do that.”
Chifa’s been open less than one week but its collabs are already extending beyond the Nünchi dessert. Humberto can’t reveal too much about future collabs, but the custom striped wallpaper—made with Calico Wallpaper—will be available for sale sometime this month, and in seven new colors in January. Eventually, he says, he’d like to be able to sell the flatware, the plates and everything else you might see in the restaurant.
A whimsical, borderline-irreverent mini art exhibit lines the shelves near the kitchen, where artist Charlie Mai’s hand-painted Chinese figurines sport runway fashion and Lakers jerseys, while on the shelf above, artist Linda Hsiao’s custom pitchers sit in the shape of eagles and the colors of traditional Peruvian ceramics. And, given the fact that one of the restaurant’s founders co-runs one of the trendiest fashion labels of the last two decades there are of course Chifa shirts, and there’s more on the way.
Even when it comes to food, the Chifa that launched last Friday is just the beginning. Eventually days of operation will extend into the rest of the week, as will lunch service. Whenever outdoor dining service reopens, the restaurant’s patio seating can begin, and eventually, once indoor service can resume, Humberto teases they’ll have more on offer: a fuller menu featuring dishes they’ve designed for dine-in, as well as something like a monthly supper club or omakase.
“My sister built the company well enough where we can be flexible to anything,” Humberto says, adding, “It’s meant to evolve.”
Take a peek at more of Chifa, below, then stop by for takeout service Friday to Sunday during the first phase of its evolution.
Chifa is now open at 4374 Eagle Rock Blvd with hours of 4 to 9pm Fridays to Sundays.
Most popular on Time Out
– Here’s what you need to know about L.A.’s new “Safer at Home” order
– Pasadena issues a new stay-at-home order—but keeps outdoor dining open
– Los Angeles holiday traditions that aren’t happening this year
– The Sundance Film Festival is hosting drive-in screenings in L.A. in 2021
– Here’s what to eat from Citizen Public Market, Culver City’s new food hall