We want the dishes to authentically taste the way we were serving it to you if you were coming over to our house.
FORTY-SIX YEARS AGO, Wendy Leon opened a restaurant in Lima, Peru, and called it Chifa. It was just one of thousands of chifas, a Peruvian catch-all for Chinese eateries. But Leon kept her customers coming back because she was the only one in the area who could make proper wonton skins — “crispy, not chewy.”
“We had no equipment,” she says, pantomiming a rolling pin, “so we used Corona bottles.” While she prepped for the day, her newborn son, Humberto Leon, would sometimes sleep on a bag of rice in the storage room. This story of the restaurant is often recounted in the Leon family as an allegory for hard work and perseverance. Humberto’s parents were just starting their life together in Lima. When pregnant with Humberto, they’d moved back to join his dad’s Peruvian family from Hong Kong, where he’d met Wendy and her two kids.
“I didn’t know English, or Spanish,” Wendy says. All she knew was how to cook. “I needed to survive.”
Today, the Leons aren’t just surviving, but thriving. With his family, Humberto, the renowned creative director and co-founder of Opening Ceremony, launched a reincarnation of the Peruvian-Cantonese restaurant in Eagle Rock in Los Angeles, just a short distance from where they all grew up after emigrating from Latin America. This time it’s the only chifa around.
Chifa comes from the Mandarin slang “chī fàn.” When asked, Wendy searches for the translation, sitting in one of the restaurant’s velvet emerald booths before opening while her grandchildren, a few mini Leons, ignore their pizza and noisily play around her.
“Chī fàn, chī fàn!” She throws up her hands at the kids in an exasperated, matriarchal gesture, pointing to the food and smiling, as if to say, pause the party. “Time to eat.”
Humberto’s mother is his muse for everything at Chifa. Much of the menu comes from the recipes she cooked for him as a kid, and even Chifa’s flamboyant interiors — wall-to-wall zebra with “lucky” green and gold accents — take a page out of her book. “Colors need to clash,” one of her oft-repeated phrases, has stuck with Humberto throughout his career, he says. “That chaos is the beauty itself.”
Chifa challenges the archetype of the mom-and-pop Chinese joint. Despite its luxurious aesthetic and fashionable crowd, Chifa is unpretentious — a family restaurant in the most traditional sense. “Everyone in the kitchen, we’ve all been together for over 20 years,” Humberto says. His mother cooks three of the menu’s dishes herself. Humberto’s sister, Ricardina, runs all operations front and back of house. His brother-in-law, John Liu, leads the kitchen, working alongside Humberto’s niece (ribs and noodles), his nephew (expediter), his boyfriend (all to-go orders), and the non-biological auntie who raised his sister’s family (prep kitchen). Humberto creates Chifa’s visual presence in meticulous detail, but he also runs beverages, desserts, and often waits tables himself.
Where many fashion-influenced restaurants champion style over substance, Humberto was determined to have both. The Pollo Ala Brasa is a standout, and perhaps his mother’s favorite. Other dishes like the melty beef heart or the ancient Andean purple corn drink, Chicha Morada, highlight their multicultural upbringing — just don’t call it fusion. “It was never ‘eclectic’ to us,” Humberto says. These are the dishes they grew up with.
A dish like Popo’s Wellness Soup highlights the restaurant’s core tenets. Wendy (“Popo”) adjusts the hearty broth each week depending on the weather — a soothing broth for a hot day, a warming broth for chilly seasons. When you sit down to eat at Chifa, it doesn’t feel like the food was batched for 250 people.
“We want the dishes to authentically taste the way we were serving it to you if you were coming over to our house,” Humberto says. At Chifa, and as a through line in all his work, Humberto describes a symbiotic relationship between what the consumer sees on the surface and the backstory. “What happens behind the scenes is just as important.”
Every dish on the menu has a story. Even something as simple as the lemon tea was perfected in Hong Kong, where Humberto apprenticed for a tea master to learn the precision of leaf straining. That intentionality also comes through in Humberto’s many collaborations with local artisans and thought leaders. From celebrities like Solange Knowles, Ali Wong, and Padma Lakshmi to queer, brown, Black, AAPI, and immigrant makers and creatives, Humberto seeks to invest in the communities that invested in him.
So much of Chifa is about giving credit where credit is long overdue. When you want to dress up for a special dinner, birthday, or anniversary, Humberto says most people think of a French or Italian restaurant, maybe Japanese. “Chinese isn’t ever top of mind,” he says. But now Chifa is inarguably a place people come to celebrate, be it engagements, date nights, or even just a girls’ night out. Chifa excites its patrons with the buzzy irreverence of a drag queen and the tender care of a fashion grandma. “The food deserves that.”
Fran Tirado Writer
Fran Tirado is a screenwriter and creative producer between Brooklyn and LA. Their podcasts about queer culture, “Food 4 Thot” and “Like a Virgin,” are streamable everywhere.
Keith Oshiro Photographer
Keith Oshiro is a photographer born and raised in Los Angeles. He graduated from ArtCenter College of Design with a BFA in photography and imaging. His work focuses on highlighting people from diverse backgrounds and challenging conventional stereotypes about identity. Through this process, he hopes to empower the next generation in creating open, transformative spaces with his friends and the people he encounters. Select clientele include the New York Times, Nike, Highsnobiety, i-D, and Mamag Studios.