When Highland Mall closed its doors to make way for Austin Community College, lots of small businesses were forced to close their doors. One was La Chaparrita, a remarkable Peruvian food counter in the upstairs food court.
It turns out the forced move was somewhat of a blessing for owner Susana Osorio, who had been considering relocating for the past year. And just this August, Lima Criolla opened in The Linc (the new mixed-use space formerly known as Lincoln Village).
“This is a better location than [Highland Mall], but very close at the same time — and very close to I-35. I think this space was meant for me,” says Osorio.
In addition to her regular following of Highland Mall customers (who mostly found La Chaparrita through Google searches), Osorio says her customer base is already starting to multiply at the new location.
“I didn’t even announce my grand opening yet because I’m waiting on the company who’s making my sign,” she says. “It’s been almost two months of soft opening, but people are coming here just through word of mouth. I’m really glad they are finding me even more than I am looking for them. It’s great!”
Osorio admits that transitioning from counter service to a full-service restaurant presented a steep learning curve. “It was a lot to learn because now I am in charge of everything,” she says. “It’s been challenging, but I am very glad that I worked with the City of Austin … and I had a lot of people help me out. Friends, especially, who were very enthusiastic to make Lima Criolla happen.”
She stresses that the city couldn’t have been more helpful in empowering her to transform the former Thai restaurant space into something completely different, starting by drafting up the initial floor plans.
“I have a budget but I don’t have too much money, so I had to start everything by myself,” she says. “But over the complete process, City of Austin engineers taught me how to do it. The health department was also great. They look for high standards and they take care of all the details but, at the same time, they teach you how to work well … I had a great experience opening this restaurant.”
In her native Lima, Peru, Osorio studied business. “But I’ve always enjoyed cooking,” she says. “When I had the opportunity to open a restaurant, I get deeply involved in the cooking.”
In fact, the dishes at Lima Criolla are the product of many friendly competitions between Osorio and her family members. The carapulcra (braised pork with Andean-dried potatoes) is her own winning recipe, while the adobo limoño (citrus-marinated pork stew with sweet potato) is her mother-in-law’s, the ceviche is her sister-in-law’s, and so on.
“I bring together my best friends who are Peruvian and other family members, especially the men who are the more complaining guys, and we all test them,” she says with a smile. “Any product that is new in my restaurant, I test first with them. If I need to make any adjustments, I do and then we test again.”
Osorio then teaches each recipe to her kitchen staff, who’ve all worked with her since La Chaparrita opened in 2010. “They are really good,” she says. “They didn’t go to school for cooking but they have the experience and we have a great team.”
Osorio’s Jane-of-all-trades, hands-on approach is nothing new. She previously owned a jewelry store that sold Italian gold and sterling silver. When the recession hit in 2008, she decided to close the store and instead opened an Avon franchise store, which went on to become one of the most successful in the nation. During that very same time, she opened La Chaparrita, just upstairs from her Avon store in Highland Mall.
“For me, it was easy to manage because the two things were in the same place — I just went up and down!” she says with a smile. “It was my first adventure of having a restaurant.”
Now, in her spacious, colorful new spot, the adventure continues. Peruvian folk paintings hang against one saffron-colored wall and Osorio just launched a pisco sour-focused bar (which also offers Peruvian wine and beer). Once she gains approval and permitting to add a rotisserie grill to her kitchen, she looks forward to serving pollo a la brasa, the country’s most popular preparation of chicken.
On weekends, the place comes alive with karaoke nights, soccer viewing parties, and bands playing a range of Latin American music, from cumbia and salsa to Brazilian jazz and Afro-Peruvian rhythms. Once dinner is finished, the tables and chairs are usually pushed aside to create a dance floor.
“In Peru, we have a large variety,” says Osorio. “Our food is a mixture of all different cultures: Chinese, Japanese, French, Italian, Spanish, African, and Incan cuisine. It also depends if you are from the north, from the south, from the center, from the jungle, from the mountain. But this is Lima, my home. So I’m trying to give people here in Austin our flavors.”
For more information on upcoming events at Lima Criolla, follow them on Facebook.