Eating on the Edge: San Fernando restaurant, in a Lynnwood strip mall, is the kind of unique mom-and-pop place that too often gets priced out of Seattle.
Once an indispensable and beloved neighborhood institution, Olsen’s Scandinavian Foods closed last summer. The loss of the store, which sold Norwegian groceries on Market Street in Ballard for almost 50 years, was measured mostly in sentiment and metaphors as few people regularly shopped there anymore.
It was one of the last of its kind, another lost connection to the neighborhood’s past and its Norwegian identity, another humble enterprise unable to keep up with style and taste. Bikram yoga, tapas, and gourmet dog food paid the rent in Ballard; pickled herring did not.
The same story played out with the closing of the local Denny’s restaurant and the Sunset Bowl. The ground beneath their foundations was simply too valuable to justify the value and quality of the goods and services they provided. As with Olsen’s, those losses were more sentimental than material. The bowling alley was shopworn; the food at the diner was mediocre at best. What the city lost was the ability to see itself as the kind of place that cares about a lousy diner and an aging bowling alley. And it lost the slice of life those places represented.
That slice of life still exists in the Seattle area, of course, just farther from its center, in a place where bowling alleys, drive-throughs, diners and dives peaceably reside thanks to low rent. Technically, Lynnwood is another municipality, one of the many suburbs ringing what we think of as Seattle. In spirit, though, the boundaries between cities around here are becoming more difficult to define.
Lynnwood is where Walter Diaz and Nancy Bautista, husband and wife from the inland Peruvian state of Amazonas, located their small restaurant, San Fernando, named for their eldest son. The couple saved up for seven years to open the restaurant. Walter worked construction jobs; Nancy worked for a Korean family in its dry cleaning store.
The couple opened the place one year ago, setting out to serve informal, popular Peruvian dishes to the small, Peruvian-American community scattered between Edmonds and Everett. Many of their customers, Nancy said, are employed by Boeing, some as mechanics.
San Fernando is located at the end of a small strip mall near Highway 99 and 208th Street S.W., in a storefront previously occupied by a Domino’s pizza franchise. A nail salon and a convenience store are its neighbors. The Lynnwood Bowl and Skate is close by. So is a gun shop, various car dealerships, a Korean buffet, a Szechuan restaurant, a florist, a day-care center, a Walgreens store, and two Starbucks stores with drive-up windows. The store is close to the couple’s home. The neighborhood is affordable and easy to navigate, they said.
Visually, this area implies a nowhere-ness with its utilitarian architecture and car-dominated streetscape. But much of the real striving and living, the cultural fermentation that drives the evolution of all great cities, are happening here. Lynnwood and other outlying communities are to Seattle what Queens is to Manhattan. And for now, here is the closest one can get to finding Peruvian country cooking in Seattle.
Set back from Highway 99, the place is easy to miss. Its sign mentions nothing of Peru, just the restaurant’s “roasted chicken” a reliable enticement for non-Peruvians. San Fernando serves them whole ($15), or cut in half ($8) or in quarters ($5.50), with rice or French fries. The hens are rubbed in salt, pepper, garlic and cumin and cooked in a rotisserie oven.
The most popular dish here is lomo saltado, strips of beef sautéed with onions, tomatoes, peppers and French fries. Sauteeing fries is a Peruvian quirk. Another dish, salchipapas, is made by throwing sliced hot dogs and French fries into a skillet.
Chinese food is as popular in Peru as it is anywhere in the world. Every Peruvian housewife knows how to make fried rice, called arroz Chaufa or Chinese rice. San Fernando’s arroz Chaufa ($8) is fried with red peppers, tomatoes, onions and beef. Tallarin saltado ($8.50), another popular dish among the Peruvian customers, is a sort of Peruvian chow mein, spaghetti noodles fried with chicken, tomatoes and peppers.
The restaurant serves two stews, cau-cau ($8.50) made with beef tripe, and seco de carne ($8.50) made with fork-tender chunks of beef in a cilantro-spinach sauce. The seafood is limited to fried tilapia ($9.50) and two kinds of ceviche (both $13), one made with halibut, the other with halibut, octopus, squid and shrimp. San Fernando’s ceviche is made with potato and corn, two agricultural staples of the Peru. (The restaurant serves a homemade punch called chichi morada, made by boiling purple corn with cinnamon, pineapple and sugar; but the most popular drink is the Inca cola, a yellow, fruity soda.)
Bautista is from a small town called Bagua Grande, set by a narrow lake, not too far from Peru’s border with Ecuador. Where she is from, she said, seafood is very expensive, and meat is a luxury not to be taken for granted. Most of the meat they eat is chicken, she said. The diet is heavy in corn, potatoes and eggs.
One of the most popular appetizers at San Fernando is the papa a la huancaina ($5), slices of potatoes covered with cheese sauce, spiked with olives. The papa rellena is deep-fried ball of mashed potatoes the size of a softball, stuffed with ground beef, egg, olives and raisins, served with a garnish of chopped cilantro and thinly sliced red onions, pre-soaked in water to reduce their bite.
Most of the items on the menu, Bautista said, are typically sold by street vendors in Peru. The seasonings used in the restaurant are relatively simple, usually some combination of garlic, turmeric, paprika, bay leaves, oregano, cumin, and cilantro.
The chicken is roasted ahead of time. The couple — both share in the cooking and run the restaurant themselves for the most part, hiring a third person to work just the weekends — try to keep at least four or five birds ready to serve in the oven. The sautéed dishes are made to order. The deep fryer constantly churns out fries.
The restaurant seats about two dozen people. The kitchen is spotless and open to the dining room. Business can be sporadic, with bursts of customers throughout the afternoon. Most of the time, the two can easily manage the volume. The food they serve is very much like the meals they would cook for themselves at home, where they learned to cook.
Most of his life, Diaz worked in commercial construction as a framer, working outside, sometimes in the rain. He did much of the work in his own restaurant, finishing walls and tiling the floor. As a restaurateur, he works much longer days, but the pace is more relaxed. The best part, he said, is being able to work indoors.
There are not enough Peruvians in the area to pack the place at all hours. The couple relies on Americans, Mexicans, and Asians to come in and eat. Peruvian food is still unfamiliar to most in Seattle, where its easy to find Mexican food, much of it authentic, but little else from Latin America.
Last summer, during the final weeks of operation at Olsen’s, customers showed up in large numbers. The aisles were crowded, the lines at the counter long. If business was like that everyday, remarked Kevin Osterhout, whose family owned the store, it would not have to close.
Within his glib observation was the insinuation that we like the idea of having a Scandinavian grocery store more than we like actually having one. Similarly, we like the idea of having a Denny’s in Ballard more than we actually like eating at Denny’s.
In Seattle, where rent is high and property scarce, sentiment alone cannot support bowling alleys and greasy spoons. For that, we always have Lynnwood.
If you go: San Fernando Peruvian restaurant, 20815 67th Ave West, Lynnwood, 425-275-9597. Open noon to 10 pm Tuesdays-Fridays, 10 am to 10 pm Saturdays, and 10 am to 8 pm Sundays. Closed Mondays.