'Señor Nikkei' brings flavors of Peru and Japan to Hopkins
It’s a Friday evening at the newly opened K’kinaco Nikkei and Pisco Bar in downtown Hopkins. The restaurant is packed with families, couples and groups of friends laughing and talking mostly in Spanish. Latin music plays in the background and the umami smell of traditional Nikkei food fills the room.
Behind the sushi bar at K’kinaco is Chef Enrique Salazar, known by his community as “Señor Nikkei.” He proudly wears a black apron with the Peruvian flag on his shoulder and makes sure that each roll, dish, and drink are plated well and taste even better.
Originally from Peru, Salazar grew up in a family with a love for food. His father was a third generation Chinese Peruvian who loved to prepare traditional food for his family. Salazar’s mother was a pastry chef who baked traditional Peruvian desserts.
“I have a lot of knowledge of Peruvian desserts, which are going to be included on the menu,” said Salazar speaking in Spanish.
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And in fact, K’kinaco’s menu offers two traditional desserts: “crema volteada,” a creamy type of flan, and “suspiro de Limeña,” a Peruvian style caramel pudding.
Salazar came to the U.S from Peru during a difficult political and economic crisis in his home country. The bank where he worked was shut down and Salazar was one of 30,000 employees left unemployed.
Salazar says when he first arrived in the country he was not able to continue working in banking because of the language barrier. He soon met a friend who helped him get his start as a sushi chef in Minneapolis. Still, Salazar remembers how difficult those first years were for his family.
“The adaptation process was very hard. I come from the coast, from a mild weather where there is no rain, where there is no snow, so the first years were very difficult,” he said. “Despite knowing many states, and having traveled a lot around the country, I think Minnesota is definitely the place where I am going to stay. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
As the years went by, Salazar mastered the art of Japanese cooking techniques. He was happy being a sushi chef and running a catering business on the side, but he dreamed of opening his own Nikkei restaurant and highlighting traditional Peruvian food.
“Nikkei” describes the descendants of Japanese emigrants across the world. Many Nikkei people began arriving in Peru around the turn of the 20th century to work on plantations. Nikkei people have long been one of the largest ethnic groups in Peru and over time the term Nikkei began being used to describe the food that grew out of their presence in the country.
Salazar was able to make his dream a reality with the help of two good friends - Roberto Palma and Charlie Mandile. The first one to join the gastronomic journey was Roberto Palma, a Peruvian businessman.
“Chef Enrique started talking about his dream to bring Peruvian food, Nikkei food maybe eight or ten years ago,” he said. “Just bringing ideas to reality, that’s how we become involved. The three of us bring a special superpower to this project and I love it.”
American Charlie Mandile — the last to join — turned out to bring the missing piece. His finance background helped K’kinaco become a reality.
“I helped them understand potentially the financial opportunities to pursue their dream and about three weeks later, they showed up at my door with a business plan,” he said. “They had started a while back and said, do you want to help us make our dream come true? And how can I say no to that?”
The name K’kinaco is derived from both Peruvian and Japanese cultures. Kinaku is a Quechua and Aymara word meaning “treasure” in Peru. Kinako is a Japanese food product made from soybeans. Salazar says they loved that the name reflected cultural traditions from both countries.
Nikkei food is made with Peruvian ingredients like tropical fish, quinoa and native peppers and herbs, molded by Japanese techniques. It’s becoming popular in the U.S. too and it is a style of cooking that has long been close to Salazar’s heart.
The restaurant’s founders say K’kinaco is the first Nikkei and Pisco bar experience in Minnesota. Pisco is a fine grape distillate declared Cultural Heritage of Peru since 1988 and it is the base of the emblematic cocktail called Pisco Sour.
“I’ve been living in Minnesota for 27 years and even though there were some Peruvian restaurants, they are all closed now,” said Rosario Bretey while tasting a Pisco sour. “Being here enjoying the food makes me feel like we are in Perú.”
Bretey and other Peruvian members of a non-profit group called Mi Perú gave the restaurant high marks.
K’kinaco’s gastronomic profile not only pleases Peruvian and Japanese palates, but also surprises people like Claudia Knutson, a Colombian living in Minnesota who says she’s a fan of a particular Peruvian dish called ‘lomo saltado.’ “This dish has flavor, its texture is spectacular and the Pisco sour is delicious,” she said.
During his more than twenty years in the U.S., Chef Enrique Salazar has stuck to his roots and opened a restaurant that reminded him of the country that saw him grow up.
“Being in this country does not mean that we have to put aside our culture,” he said. “ I am an admirer of my culture, of my traditions.”
Salazar adds that he is expecting his first granddaughter and says he will teach her about her heritage.
“We are going to teach her everything related to the culture of her grandparents,” said Salazar. The only way to maintain our traditions is through future generations.”
Salazar says he hopes to continue growing K’kinaco, making it a place for the Peruvian community to come together, enjoy the Nikkei style of cooking, and feel like they are in a place that reminds them of home.