When Norma Palomino began cooking traditional Peruvian dishes for her friends and neighbors, she never expected her efforts to blossom into a full-time business. What started as a weekend pop-up quickly expanded into a full-service restaurant in the suburbs of Kansas City.
We sat down to talk to Norma about her experience growing up in Peru, her journey to the United States, and her passion for food.
Can you tell me a little bit about your life, growing up in Peru?
My dad was from small town called Abancay in the Region of Apurimac, and he worked hard to support our family. There were 12 of us – my mom also worked a lot and left us alone at home. When I was 20 years old, I had my beautiful daughter, Susana. And it was difficult to support her in Peru because I couldn’t find consistent work.
I had an opportunity to move to the United States for work at the age of 33, and I had to make the difficult decision to come to the United States and leave my daughter behind. It was horrible – I had never been separated from her, and it was very hard to leave her and come alone. But I felt like I had no choice because we came from a poor family and I did not have a lot opportunities in my country at that time.
So I made the journey to the United States. I crossed the borders from each country, starting from Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, everything in Central America, and then we made it to the United States where we were abandoned in the desert for 3 days. We had no food or water, and we were lost — we had no idea where to go.
I can just say that 2 angels on the highway saved us and they took us all the way to our final destination, New Jersey.
Then in 2003, we decided to move to Kansas City. I had some family in the Midwest and they encouraged me to come here because it was more affordable than the east coast and it was a beautiful area, and the people are very nice. So we decided to make the move to Kansas City, and found jobs here. Because of that, we were able to buy a house and settle down here. I want to tell you that I appreciate the United States for all the opportunities that this country has given me, and for allowing me to share something from my country of Peru to the Kansas City community.
After you moved to Kansas City, how did you decide to take the leap and open your own restaurant?
In 2004 or 2005, my husband at the time suffered an accident where he couldn’t work for 6 months. I was working at the time, but the money wasn’t enough to pay our bills. I decided to start cooking to make some extra money, because I love being in the kitchen, and I am really passionate about Peruvian food. I started making food for my Peruvian friends – tamales, ceviche – and the word of mouth became bigger and bigger. People started telling me “Norma, you need to open a restaurant. You’re gonna be amazing, your food is excellent.” I told them, “Yes, I want to open a restaurant someday, but right now I just need to focus on surviving and paying our bills.”
So, I saved as much money as I could, and finally I had enough to open a restaurant. So I opened the restaurant and people came pouring in to try the food. They loved it, and my friends were bringing their friends, their customers, friends of friends and so on.
So in the beginning, it was a challenge to push my family forward, to take care of our responsibilities, and now it has become a way to share amazing dishes from our land, Peru.
Tell me a little bit about Peruvian cuisine. What should people try on their first visit?
Well, Peruvian food is a mix of 3 cultures: the Inca culture, the Chinese culture, and most people don’t realize we have a lot of Italian culture. When you mix these 3 cultures at once, then you have the magic that is Peruvian cuisine.
The first plate that I would recommend for someone who is not familiar with Peruvian food is the Lomo Saltado. Lomo Saltado is a plate with french fries, white rice, strip steak, onion, tomato, and a dressing made of salt, pepper, soy sauce, cumin, and Peruvian spices. It’s a traditional plate from Peru, and it’s delicious.
There was a dish that caught my eye the first time I came to Antojitos del Peru – the Jalea de Mariscos. I think that dish is one that will keep people coming back time and time again. Can you tell us about it?
Yes, Jalea, it’s a very traditional Peruvian dish. It’s basically a fried seafood dish. It has fish, shrimp, mussels, octopus, squid, all breaded and deep fried. We serve it with fried yucca and a citrusy sauce. As you can tell, it was a good plate, it’s very typical from Peru as well – very refreshing and delicious.
What do you hope people will take away from their experience at Antojitos del Peru?
I want to make sure that everybody feels like they’re eating at home — our food is completely homemade. I prepare everything myself, of course, with the help of my family. And you know, we’re from Peru, so our English is not great, but we know enough to communicate with the people.
We always recommend the Lomo Saltado. It starts with the Lomo Saltado, and the next time you come, try other things like the Jalea, the Ceviche, the Sudado de Mariscos, but we always start with the Lomo Saltado because it’s the most traditional plate.
And we want to make sure that after our customers leave the restaurant, they feel like home, and then the next time they can bring their friends and family to try our food.
Images by Alyssa Broadus (@littlefixations) & Chris Dolt (@cdoltbike)
Antojitos del Peru
Address: 7809 Quivira Rd, Lenexa, KS 66216