Long journey from Peru to Kalamazoo ends in success with Mamita's recipes

As the only Peruvian restaurant in Southwest Michigan, the owners of El Inka Peruvian Bistro were not prepared for just how popular it would be the minute they opened the doors. Zinta Aistars has the story, and the fascinating back-story.
Eighteen years old, just a few thin bills in her pocket, alone and with only the most minimum English skills, Sylvia Varillas left home in Lima, Peru, and fought her way to the United States. Mamita was so upset about Sylvia leaving that she wouldn’t speak to her. Papito understood.

Today, Sylvia Varillas is co-owner with her American-born husband Erin Kane of the new restaurant on 563 N. Drake Road, El Inka Peruvian Bistro, which opened in February. Mamita and Papito (Sylvia Estacion-Fernandez and Hernan Varillas-Guzman) are always there to help, cooking, prepping food, waiting on tables, cleaning up, and joining in the laughter.

It was a long and arduous journey here.

Much has changed since the younger Sylvia came to the United States, but her journey to Kalamazoo is one that she wants her children to hear when they get older. Hers is a story of determination, persistence, and a willingness to work hard to achieve success—all qualities she is determined to bring to El Inka Peruvian Bistro.

“I had gone to Saskatchewan in Canada for six months of high school on a scholarship,” says Varillas. “It opened my eyes to a different life. I didn’t have to hide or be scared.”

Varillas' memories of her childhood and teen years in Peru are of a government in turmoil and family life in ruin. Her father lost his job as an attorney, and the family lost all of their assets. No longer living in comfort, her father drove a taxi. They sometimes had to stand in line for food.

“So when I was 18, I sold all my clothes, everything I had, and I bought a ticket to Miami,” she says. “I knew of someone there who I heard had a cleaning business.”

When Varillas arrived at the Miami airport, no one was there to pick her up. “I arrived at 11 a.m., but my ride didn’t show up until 5 p.m. … the next day. She took what money I had, $100, gave me a piece of bread, and locked me into a room with another girl. I climbed out the window.”

Varillas walked through pouring rain to reach a train station, where she begged for money to buy another ticket. Making her way back to the airport by train, she was allowed to make a phone call by a person behind the airline desk, and Varillas called her parents, who were by then frantic to hear from her.

“They begged me to come home, but I refused,” says Varillas. “So my papito gave me the phone number for his grandfather’s sister living in Maryland. He hadn’t seen her in 20 years.”

Varillas made the phone call. Her great aunt was sympathetic and wired her an airline ticket, but Varillas had to sleep at the airport for two days, waiting for her flight. When she finally arrived, she was welcomed as family. Safe at last, she “passed out from exhaustion, and I slept for days.”

Rested and refreshed, Varillas began to look around her for work. With four quarters in her pocket, Varillas took the bus to the nearest mall, where she pounded the pavement asking in her broken English for a job.

“I went to maybe 30 places before I was hired at a coffee shop,” she says. It was a job she would hold for two years and she was promoted to manager within a matter of weeks of being hired.

Turn the clock ahead to 2013, now married to Erin Kane, a chemical coordinator at Pfizer, and Sylvia Varillas stands in a space that would soon become a family-owned restaurant offering Peruvian cuisine, a taste of home.

“I told Erin this place reminded me of that coffee shop where I had my first job in this country,” Varillas says with a smile.

Having a restaurant had been something of an ongoing joke in the family. Erin teased his wife about opening a Peruvian bistro every time she got a hankering for pollo a la brasa, blackened chicken made on a rotisserie, Peruvian-style. That hankering intensified when Varillas became pregnant.

“She’d drive to Chicago three times a month just for that chicken.” Kane laughs.

“We eat pollo a la brasa in Peru the way Americans eat burgers,” Varillas agrees.

Teasing turned into a more serious suggestion, and when the couple purchased an expensive cooking station (used to make pollo a la brasa) from Peru to be shipped to Kalamazoo, their commitment to opening the bistro was solidified. It took four months to arrive.

“Our government here had the shutdown just when the oven arrived in Miami,” says Kane. “We had to pay an extra $5,000 to offload the oven. We ended up building the restaurant around that oven.”

By then, Varillas’ parents had moved to the United States as well, and the family joined together to open the new Peruvian restaurant. At times, the idea seemed to be wrapped in so many complications that the couple wondered if they’d made the right move.

“It did cause some nightmares, but we kept reassuring each other and plugging along,” says Kane.

Relying only on word of mouth and a few posts on their Facebook page, El Inka Peruvian Bistro planned a soft opening in midweek: another mistake.

“We were packed. People were lined up outside the door, beginning Wednesday and going on through Sunday,” says Kane. “It seems we are the only Peruvian restaurant in Michigan, and people were coming down from Grand Rapids and even Ann Arbor.”

“None of us had restaurant experience,” Varillas says. “It was like trying to fly a plane for the first time. We ran out of everything, silverware, food, everything. I stood in the cooler and cried.”

But it was not in Varillas nature to quit. The restaurant, she says, became an obsession. It took about three weeks, she says, but then the family hit their groove. “Now we run out of nothing.”

Even Varillas’ 7-year-old daughter occasionally works, bringing water glasses and menus to tables, wearing a Peruvian folk costume and chatting with customers.

All the recipes on the menu, which continues to expand, “are Mamita's recipes,” says Varillas. Peruvian cuisine, she explains, has a strong Asian influence, a little bit of Greek, Italian and German, and uses a lot of potatoes, lime, and peppers.

The menu includes appetizers, side salads, and entrees for dining in or take-out.

El Inka Peruvian Bistro is open from Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; and Sunday noon to 8 p.m. They will open on Mondays beginning June 2. For more information, call 269.978.2400.

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.

Photos by Erik Holladay.
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