Yeral Caldas is an ambitious restaurateur. He wants to open “not just one, but many” Peruvian restaurants in San Francisco. In the ten years since he arrived in the city, that is exactly what he’s done. Last night he hosted the grand opening of his second restaurant, El Ají.
“I’m a very solid type of person, and I’m a hard worker,” said Caldas, addressing about 50 people who had come to support him and fill the 15 tables at El Ají at 3015 Mission St. Some represented local organizations that he had turned to for guidance and resources on the path to starting his businesses.
“I was thinking about my goal every single day – even when I didn’t know how to do it, I knew I had to.”
Caldas may be best known for his authentic ceviches, which he conjures behind a simple counter top at Cholo Soy, which began operating out of the multi-purpose Plaza Adelante building on 19th and Mission streets in 2012. It was the Peruvian immigrant’s first shot in the restaurant business, and it gave him momentum. His small eatery turned into a popular lunch stop among Mission residents, often crowded with patrons.
“I was the fourth restaurant in that space and everybody was telling me not to open there, that it was a bad location,” remembered Caldas. “If I listened to them, where would I be now?”
Still, he kept forging ahead.
“The day after I started Cholo Soy, I was already checking this place out,” said Caldas joking about his new location. “Now that I opened this one, I’m looking for my the next [potential] restaurant – some people only look straight ahead, but my view is wide.”
That open mindedness helped Caldas through less successful times. He had come to the United States in 2005 to be with his 15-year-old daughter, but later divorced from her mother. He worked as a dishwasher and as a bartender, and started thinking about returning to Peru.
“I contemplated, I analyzed, I cried. And then, I figured out what I wanted most in life,” said Caldas. That’s when he united his passion for food with his business skills, and began walking the city, looking for opportunity.
“I went to City Hall, and I found MEDA [the Mission Economic Development Agency]. I walked everywhere and went to check out places personally,” he said.
Caldas enrolled in the organization’s financial capability workshop, which provides coaching and financial education to low-income families. The organization helped him develop a business plan, and map out his next steps. Caldas began to seek resources on his own initiative – he built up his credit, received his first loan, and sought assistance from credit unions.
El Ají’s space was previously occupied by a Nicaraguan restaurant and has officially been serving food there since August 31. Caldas was able to negotiate a 5-year lease.
“It’s so good to see one of the people from our community opening a restaurant in the Mission,” said Dairo Romero, community planning manager at MEDA. “This is a successful collaboration between a small business owner and many organizations. We helped him with the negotiations with the previous owner, but he found the resources necessary to take this step.”
Though notably more spacious than Cholo Soy, Caldas’ new restaurant is simple in the same way, making a lot out of a little. From a minimalistic interior – white walls that are sparsely decorated give the restaurant an unassuming but clean feel – to basic ingredients true to Peruvian tradition.
“In Peru, the dishes are simple – arroz, pollo, just meat and onion, nada mas. Simple,” he said.
And of course, there’s always ají amarillo in some form. The pepper is comparable to Mexico’s chile and is just the right amount of hot – it is the beginning and the end of everything in Peruvian cuisine.
It is also the secret ingredient in his ceviche Chalaco: Basa fish topped with a yellow ají sauce, served with a side of green corn and camote, or sweet potato.
“In the north of Peru, women are more daring,” said Caldas, who is from Chimbote, the largest fishing port in northern Peru. “In Lima and other parts, they use vinegar for cooking. But in the north, they use Chicha de Jora [corn beer].”
He learned this and more from an aunt whom he would assist with anything – washing onions, plates, the fish, whatever needed to be done – just for a taste of her ceviche.
“‘Give me a hand and you can have some ceviche when you finish,’ my aunt always told me,” he said. “She would never use one specific fish – it was whatever was caught that day, whatever was in the market, whatever was fresh.”
Guests at the opening were presented with a taste of Caldas’ cooking – lamb, chicken, beef topped with chunks of onion on a pile of arroz chaufa, or Peruvian fried rice with egg that is reminiscent of Asian cuisine.
District 9 Supervisor David Campos recognized Caldas’ efforts to cultivate tradition and culture in the neighborhood with a certificate from the city.
“This is arguably the toughest time that I have seen in this neighborhood – residents are being pushed out, long-term businesses are disappearing from the Mission,” said Campos. “In the middle of that, to see Yeral and his family coming into the Mission and opening a full service restaurant… gives me a sense that it is possible for us as a community to move forward – for working class, low-income people to have a fighting chance in San Francisco.”
But for Caldas, opening his own business as a Latino in a neighborhood uprooted by gentrification and displacement was nothing revolutionary – it can be done, he said, with perseverance, self-confidence, and by turning to others for help.
“I think that for many Latinos, it’s more than just a language barrier that keeps them from taking that step forward. I’ve met a whole bunch who are qualified and have good qualities, but they don’t know about them. They don’t see them in themselves,” said Caldas. “They walk and walk, 100 steps, but then they need one more and they don’t take it. They are afraid of losing face, of failing – it’s part of the idiosyncrasy of Latin America – they are afraid of not making it, it’s part of the culture.”
And just as his guests finished their plates, Caldas began dreaming about his next endeavor.
“My next restaurant will be called ‘Ucho,’” he said, which means ‘ají’ in Quechua, Peru’s indigenous language. But for that, he said, he would need a like-minded business partner.