Christopher Reategui speaks of his native country and its bold flavors with quiet pride and an obvious passion to introduce others to the taste combinations of seafood, meat, lime, cilantro, corn and potatoes that are unique to Peru.
The country's name has become synonymous with the ancient Incan civilization and rugged vacations to the famed Machu Picchu site. Hearing Reategui's enthusiastic knowledge of Peruvian history and the conquest of the Incas, it becomes clear that his new restaurant in Key West -- Incas -- is appropriately named.
The restaurant sits unobtrusively on the corner of White and Petronia streets, in the building that for decades housed the familiar Cuban restaurant called Jose's Cantina. But things have changed vastly on the inside, where Reategui and his family cleaned, painted, added a bathroom, redid plumbing, cleaned some more and then decorated the walls with traditional Peruvian art, soft alpaca wall hangings and a giant mural of Machu Picchu. A map of the country may soon be added to the walls, as Reategui frequently cures North American ignorance of South American geography.
Reategui owns Incas with his wife, Guilianna Belotti, and his mother-in-law Rosa Rojo, who does most of the cooking. The couple has a 10-year-old daughter, Kimberly, and a 14-month-old son Christopher, Jr.
The extended family owned a restaurant in Peru for 14 years before emigrating to the United States 12 years ago.
His father, sister and other relatives are also involved and living in Key West and Miami.
"Peruvian food is spicy, but not hot, and all of the food we serve here comes from Peru," said Reategui, in heavily accented English as he proudly pulled products from the kitchen, each of them bearing the "Product of Peru" stamp.
Giant corn, with kernels the size of marbles, comes in yellow and purple colors, with the purple variety being made into, Chicha Morada, a popular bottled juice drink that Reategui also carries.
He has Peruvian sodas, beers, potatoes and seafood such as octopus, squid and shrimp that's "cooked" only by lime juice in the restaurant's bold-flavored ceviche.
"The ceviche was perfect, fresh and beautifully presented," said Key Wester Ginny Altobello, who ate at Incas recently, and was impressed. "Also their beverage, chichi morada (Peruvian purple corn cider),sounds gross but is really refreshing. I'm happy there's a good place to eat in my neighborhood."
Reategui acknowledges that most people have never tasted Peruvian food, and he's happy to explain the menu, or help customers decide what they'll like.
"Six men came in the other day, not knowing that this wasn't a Cuban restaurant anymore," he said. "They kept saying they wanted a Cuban sandwich, or Cuban food. But instead I make them a Peruvian sandwich, and they have been back three times," he said, holding up three fingers to emphasize his customers' conversion. "Once people try it, they like it."
Reategui and his family are from Peru's coastal region outside the capital of Peru, so seafood is a staple in their cooking. The country's three diverse regions of coast, mountains and jungle dictate the various food products available in some places.
Incas serves lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., with a menu filled with combinations of chicken, beef, fish, potatoes and vegetables. It also offers Peruvian-style paella and a traditional dessert of homemade ice cream made with lucuma, a mild fruit that only grows in Peru.
The comfortable and freshly cleaned restaurant still offers counter seating and about 10 tables.
"I just want people to try it, because I know they'll like it," Reategui said, thumbing through a careworn reference book about Peruvian history and culture. "I love my country."