Episode #49: Erik Ramirez
The chef and co-owner of Llama Inn & Llama San in New York City.
Erik Ramirez is the chef and owner of Llama Inn and Llama San, two Peruvian restaurants in New York City. I have been a fan of Erik’s food since they opened Llama Inn in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 2015. It was a pivotal moment for not just Peruvian food in New York City, but Latin American food in general. Things started to change. While there had always been great Peruvian restaurants in the boroughs made by and for immigrant communities, there was little that reflected what was happening in restaurants throughout Latin America. Llama Inn continues to broaden the spectrum.
Erik was born in New Jersey to Peruvian parents and grew up was very much a part of the very large Peruvian community in and around Paterson. He learned to cook a lot of different styles of cuisines at restaurants in New York and Philadelphia and they all contribute to his eclectic approach to Peruvian food. Llama Inn and Llama San are his own idea of cooking. He just tries to cook with the flavors of Peru while not being overly constrained by what anyone thinks a Peruvian restaurant should be. His restaurants have opened the doors to a different idea of Latin American food in New York City. It doesn’t have to be inexpensive. It can be personal to the chef and not just a concept or trend. The landscape has totally changed over the last seven years. Latin American food in New York City is more of its own thing, which is great. It’s not trying to be anything else than what it is. Well, most of it anyway.
I live an hour away from Llama Inn now, but when I lived much closer I would go a couple of times a month, which is probably more than I went anywhere else in the city. My kids basically grew up in that dining room. I still go there and to Llama San when I’m in the city. They are great restaurants run by genuinely good people. Sometimes I feel like they are just for me, living in this world that is split between two continents. At least mentally most the time when not physically.
If you like Llama Inn and Llama San you’ll be happy to know they are expanding. There’s a Llama Inn opening in Madrid soon, plus a Peruvian izakaya in Hudson Yards. They might evenn go to London and are considering another resto in Madrid too. Good for them.
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Partial Episode Transcript
On creating his own idea for Peruvian cuisine in New York:
Erik: “It all started like this. The idea of Llama Inn was to create something that is familiar. Like approachable, accessible. People can see these ingredients - and I'm speaking mainly for, like, non-Peruvian people. The idea was to bring more awareness and a longer reach to expose more people to Peruvian cuisine.”
Nick: “I mean, you weren't opening in Queens or the Bronx. There wasn't a Peruvian community in this corner of Brooklyn where you were opening, so you couldn't have the same menu maybe.”
Erik: “Yeah. So the idea was to give something that's familiar while introducing something new, right? And I always use this salad as an example, the beet and goat cheese. That's something that everybody fucking loves. They see beet and goat cheese and say ‘Yeah, beet and goat cheese!’ But what we did is we added muña, like a muña pesto, which is a Peruvian mint. And then we added aguaymanto, which is a gooseberry. So, it's kind of like it was that playfulness, kind of giving something that people are familiar with, while introducing new ingredients.
And then we kind of did our own spin on traditional dishes. Like, our version of arroz con pato was made with barley and we did duck sausage. And then we had duck skin with duck liver mousse in there and covered it with spinach as the salsa criolla element of it that brings freshness to it and some acidity. I grew up in a Peruvian household, I grew up eating Peruvian food, and I never really thought of it being the food that I wanted to cook. In my career I was exposed to cooking a lot of different cuisines, so I didn't want to pigeonhole myself to just do traditional food. I wanted to be able to kind of utilize everything that I've learned and the techniques and the ingredients. We were in New York City, so it's very seasonal. We have those ingredients to play with. So, kind of put that in the mix as well. And that's how Llama Inn started.”
Nick: “I remember before you opened, you invited me to come taste some dishes. Do you remember that? The space wasn't even close to ready. You didn't have a kitchen. It was just like a warehouse somewhere. You were just testing some things. I remember going there and it was just you and Juan [Correa] there. And I got a sense that you were doing everything right, That it was going to be successful. I just knew it right away. Because it was personal. It was personal and the food was good. And it just made sense. It made common sense for where you were opening and for translating Peruvian flavors to a new audience. It was delicious.
I think you asked me if I had any advice and I said ‘Don't make causa sushi.’ Because for awhile there was this trend where it was just like putting fucking causa, which is just mashed potato casserole kind of, but chefs would take a little ball of causa and put a shrimp on it. And every modern Peruvian restaurant in the world was doing that. I didn't think that was helping the cuisine to, you know, make sushi with mashed potatoes. Have you had a causa on the menu?”
Erik: “Yes, we've had a causa on the menu, but mainly for brunch. I feel like causa is such a perfect brunch dish.”
Nick: “I love causa and I hope I didn't like scare you off from ever making causa because I love causa. I just didn’t like the weird sushi version of it.”
Erik: “My mother makes it all the time with tuna or chicken salad.”
Nick: “My mother-in-law used to do that too. So, tell me about the lomo saltado. It's still on the menu, right? Will it go to Madrid as well?”
Erik: “It will go to Madrid and it's going to be the original version, the large format one. The lomo saltado is like a blessing and a curse at the same time. It's like we can't get away from it. We've floated the idea of taking it off and trying to do something different, but we're also very worried if we did people wouldn't come back. So, it's kind of like a ball and chain. There's no, there's no way around it. It's like the station that cooks lomo saltado in Williamsburg that's all they do all night. Just make lomo.”
Nick: “Is it the number one selling dish?”
Erik: “Yeah, it's the number one selling dish. It's traditional. If you look at it you have the steak and the onions and the tomato and the cilantro and the garlic and we cover with French fries. Usually you eat the French fries on the side, right? So it's the rice with the saltado and the fries on the side. We put it on top. And then we kind of wanted to be, I guess a little different, a little more playful. So, we put little pancakes on the side. Kind of like crepes, so you can eat it like a taco. I mean, who doesn't like tacos?”
Nick: “They're scallion pancakes, right? It seems such a natural thing to have with lomo saltado. But what's weird is I've never seen it like that in Peru.”
Erik: “It's like steak fajitas.”
Nick: “Yeah, but it's like lomo saltado is a dish that arose out of Chinese influence in Peru. And there are tons of chifas with scallion pancakes. So, it's weird that no one has ever done it before. Iit seems like so obvious to me. Like when I first tried it my mind was blown. When I saw it I was like, ‘Ah, damn.’ It that was perfect.”
Erik: “And then at the end…we make it with a lot of sauce. So people ask ‘Where's the rice?’ Like, you can't have lomo saltado without rice. So once you're almost done we have the server come and they'll drop the rice and mix it all up with all the juice. It's perfect. So, we're bringing that version to Madrid.”
On growing up within the Peruvian community in New Jersey:
Erik: “I was born in Passaic, New Jersey. It's near Patterson. I went to school in Paterson. I went to Pacific Community College in Paterson. Okay. Hung out in Paterson.”
Nick: “So Patterson's the core city?”
Erik: “Yeah, it's right next door to Clifton.”
Nick: “So, Patterson, as far as I understand it, has the largest Peruvian population in the US.”
Erik: “That’s what they say. There's an area called Peru Square that is in kind of like downtown Paterson.”
Nick: “And there's a Little Lima or something like that.”
Erik: “Yeah, that's the square. Tons of Peruvian restaurants. Like a whole block. It's like Peruvian restaurant, Peruvian restaurant, Peruvian restaurant, Peruvian restaurant. Where I grew up in Passaic there's like Main Avenue and it's the same situation. Peruvian restaurant, Peruvian restaurant, Peruvian restaurant. There are anticuchos, chifas. Like a little bit of everything. There is this one restaurant that I grew up eating at called Jaimito’s. I think it's in Clifton chifa. It's like the restaurant that me and my family would always go to on Sundays. Eating out was like a like a thing on Sundays.
Nick: “And you went to a chifa. Just like in Peru. Every family goes out to a chifa. They don’t go out to eat criollo food.”
Erik: “There's another one called Jade Garden in Patterson, which is really good. Every time I'm in that near in that area I try to go check it out.”
Nick: “What do they have? Is it higher end of more like a typical chifa?”
Erik: “Typical. It’s not higher end. It's very typical. Kam Lu wantan. Arroz chaufa. Tallarin saltado. Samsi. Things like that.”
Nick: “So, your parents moved to New Jersey from Peru?”
Erik: “Yeah, they moved to New Jersey from Peru in 1978, 1979.”
Nick: “And how did they pick that area? Just because there were other Peruvians there? They had relatives or what?”
Erik: “My grandmother came first. And she ended up in Passaic, New Jersey. I think because at that time there was a Peruvian community there. I don't know exactly how or why she ended up there. But she ended up in Passaic, New Jersey. And then my mom came with my dad and they ended up staying. We lived in Passaic for a while and then we moved to Clifton, which was like the neighboring town.”
Nick: “I guess that period there was probably a lot of people from Peru moving there. It probably just ballooned up right at that moment. It's like those years, when everyone was leaving Peru, escaping everything and they ended up in New Jersey.”
Erik: “In New Jersey and Miami.”
Nick: “New Jersey and Miami. Now it's a little it's more spread out the Peruvian diaspora, but those are the places, right?”
Erik: “Yeah, I remember my parents core group of friends were all Peruvian. Okay, we had like a Colombian or an Ecuadorian sprinkled in there, but all the guys my dad played soccer with, all the places we went to go eat at, everything was Peruvian.”
Nick: “So, you really felt Peruvian growing up? Like you didn't feel like an American kid. You were surrounded by Peruvians.”
Erik: “All of my friends were Latino. Where I grew up when I started making friends and stuff, it's like, Oh, where are you from? You don’t say where you're from it is from where are your parents from. I had an Ecuadorian friend, and he was like, Oh, I'm Ecuadorian. Even though he grew up here and not born there. Where are you from? Oh, I'm Peruvian, you know? Or, my good friend was Colombian. Like, yeah, I'm from Colombia. I guess you introduced yourselves and were kind of taught like, Hey, this is where I'm from, even though we're in Passaic or Clifton. And this is where we're growing up, but where are your parents from? It’s your culture. The house that you live in, you know? Or, your friend is Italian even though he's Italian American, but at home and his parents are speaking Italian.”
Nick: “I guess what your parents were cooking Peruvian food at home?”
Erik: “You know, my mom, she wasn't like the greatest cook. She had like her repertoire that she would make. She would always make lomo saltado. Tallarines verdes con apanado. Estofado. Seco. Papa a la huancaína. She will occasionally make ceviche, causa and stuff like that, you know, just kind of like piccadillo, arroz chaufa.”
Nick: “Honestly, it sounds like the exact menu my wife's grandmother used to make. She lived with her grandmother for years until she moved here, but for the last 20 years I have been sitting at that table with her. It's been that exact lineup of dishes.”
Erik: “Yeah, it doesn't change. And then, whenever we would go visit my grandmother in Peru, it got a little more elaborate. There were more things. I want to eat this and I want to eat.”
Nick: “Did you visit Peru much growing up?”
Erik: “As a kid we would go very often, because my mom and my dad's family were all there. My grandmother, who is she's Peruvian Japanese, was in New Jersey, but my mom's good friends. My grandfather on my mom's side was Peruvian Italian. So when I was growing up, I spoke fluent Italian and Spanish. And then my great grandmother who was from Italy who came here with my mom, she would watch me so I spoke Italian, but then she passed away and I refused to continue speaking to my mom. But yeah, everybody on my on my dad's side, you know, my grandfather, my grandmother, her sister, all our relatives, all the relatives. We'd go easily, like, once a year. And then there was a period of time, I think this is when my grandfather on my mom's side passed away, maybe this was like when I was 14 or 15, we didn't go for very long time.”
Nick: “Because it was sad, or he wasn't there?”
Erik: “I don't know exactly why, but I do remember there was this big gap of us not going. And I think it had a lot to do with my parents like separating too.”
Nick: “When you went to Peru, what did you do? Did you stay in Lima?”
Erik: “Yeah, we stayed in Lima. We'd go to the beach. My mom's a big beach person. So, whenever we would go it would be summer over there. So we'd go to the beach. We would stay at my grandmother's house. She lived in San Borja.”
Nick: “That's where my wife's from. So, it's probably next door to my wife's grandmother.”
Erik: “So, yeah, we just visit relatives. My mom would visit her friends. We would stay at her friend's places and go to the beach and hang out.”
Nick: “Did you feel different? Did you feel still feel Peruvian when you went there? Did you feel more American when you're there?”
Erik: “I felt I felt more American when I went. It's like growing up where I grew up. You feel Peruvian because you're around a bunch of Latino people and they're all from different parts of the world. But there, everybody's really Peruvian. They grew up there, and me, coming from the outside, you're American. I speak a little different. But I did make friends there and every time we'd go visit my grandmother I would always go to this kid Renzo’s house who lived around the corner. We had this little group of friends that I was playing soccer and just hang out.”
On the start of new wave Latin American food in New York City:
Erik: “…And after that I went to go work at Nuela, which later became Raymi.
Nick: “I remember that space. That's kind of when I moved to New York. And I remember that was one of the first big kind of Latin American restaurants to open.”
Erik: “It was a horrible space. You walk in everything was like red.”
Nick: “I want to talk about this period in Latin American cuisine in New York. It's like 2005 to 2012 or something like that. And there was this desire to make Latin American food more in an upscale way around Manhattan, with nice ingredients and a nice ambiance, but no one really figured out how to do it. The clientele still wanted Latin American foods to be cheap and inexpensive. And they compared it to mom and pop places and that it should be authentic, which, you know, is already a strange concept in New York. But then the ambience was just like really fucking loud everywhere. And it was like orange and tropical. And it was just weird. It was very Miami.”
Erik: “It didn't last. I can tell you that.”
Nick: “It was just a period of like, five years.”
Erik: “I think there's only really one chef that kind of like brought it to a new level. That was Douglas Rodriguez. And maybe and Jose Garces, who I think is from that time.”
Nick: “It just lacked identity.”
Erik: “I agree 100%.”
Nick: “They were trying to concept the shit out of everything. And I just found it weird. I think Mexican cuisine in New York, at least at that time, was a little more varied. I think there were some restaurants that were a little more interesting, but everything else was weird, right? Nothing lasted.”
Erik: “I was skeptical about taking that position. But when I met the chef Adam Schop, I really liked him, We really hit it off and I liked working with him.”
Nick: “The food was really good at Raymi. I thought it was it was good. And then when it became Raymi, that's when Jaime Pesaque entered into the picture and consulted and he brought all kinds of Pisco macerations.”
Erik: “We went over there spent some time with him. So the core team was this kid Boris Torres, who now owns Chirp. I don't know if you heard of Chirp, which is a pollo a la brasa place in New York. For me, it's delicious. His family has a restaurant in Queens called El Anzuelo Fino on Jaimaca Avenue. And then there as this other kid Omar, who's in Dubai now and he has a restaurant called Slab. All three of us went to Peru and we worked with [Jaime] and kind of worked on the menu and everything with him. It was a great experience.”
Nick: “That was probably like the start of some sort of Peruvian food idea happening. La Mar probably came right after Raymi or maybe it paralleled for a little while. Anyway, that moment in New York restaurant history, it was like this little blip where everyone was trying to figure out Latin American cuisine in a different way. La Mar included. And it was tough because no one knew what to do. The clientele didn't know what to think of it. I imagine getting like the right ingredients must have been a shitshow at that time.”
Erik: “No, we never had anything fresh. That's always been a challenge in getting anything fresh. But it's never, from what I remember, been difficult to get frozen ají amarillo, frozen rocoto and stuff like that. I mean, to this day, we still get the same stuff. Nothing's really ever changed. Except now that we work with people that grow huacatay and we work with people that grow ají amarillo, but it's only seasonal. You can get it in the summer. What's great about Madrid is you can get a lot of that stuff fresh.”
Nick: “Because the climate in Madrid?
Erik: “It comes from Peru, but it comes fresh. We get fresh ají amarillo. Fresh rocoto. Fresh limo.”
Nick: “So how do they get in Madrid and that doesn't happen here. You would think at this point. I would think some of those importers would figure it out.”
Erik: “I don't know, to be honest. We have an importer that that brings us all that stuff. Maybe he brings it in suitcases. I don't know.”
Nick: “I wouldn't be surprised. So after Raymi, that's when Llama Inn opens.”
Erik: “That's when Llama Inn happened.”
Nick: “And how did that come to be?”
Erik: “I was at Raymi, I was happy there. And my partner now approached me and was like, ‘Hey, I want to open up a Peruvian restaurant. What do you think about opening it with me?’ I was a little skeptical. I was like, I'm pretty happy here. Everything's going really well. I'm really close with the owner. His two sons were my sous chefs. So, it has this family feel. Yeah, right. So I started talking to my partner now, Juan Correa. And, you know, we kind of developed the relationship and we kind of floated ideas of what we thought the concept should be.
I took a trip to Peru and it was one of the trips that was more of like a career culinary perspective, right? And I was really blown away at that time by everything that everybody was doing there. I think it was called al autor at the time, that style of cooking. And everybody was cooking like how you cook here in New York City, but using Peruvian ingredients. A little more technique. A little more presentation. And I was like that's exactly what we can do here. I thought it can translate well and even though we don't get all the ingredients, we can still use some of the ingredients. So that was kind of the idea. That's the idea I had for Llama Inn.
We did a tasting and we did a couple of runs. And then we all agreed upon it, and then we moved forward with it. And it did really well and it opened a lot of doors for all these opportunities that we have now.”
Nick: “I think it opened a lot of doors, not just for your own opportunities, but I think it opened the doors for New York City as well. In the last seven years, Latin American food in New York has totally changed. It’s completely different. The idea of a Latin American restaurant in New York is much more broad. It's like you have places like Mena, which closed but I'm sure it will re-open. You have places making masa like Sobre Masa and For All Good Things. You have fine dining Mexican, like Cosme and Oxomoco. Then all these Peruvian places that aren't traditional, like Contento, Mission Ceviche and Popular.”
Erik: “Absolutely. I feel like Llama Inn was…that was our goal, to start this new thing. And I think we did it.”
Quotes from this interview have been gently edited for context and clarity.