Denver Chef Carolina Zubiate Serves Up Chifa Night Pop-Up Series | Westword
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This Emerging Chef Is Finding Her Culinary Voice With Monthly Chifa Night Pop-Up Series

Experience chef Carolina Zubiate's Chinese-Peruvian fare this summer at Yuan Wonton.
The Chifa Night kitchen team (left to right): Katarina Guettlein, Yuan Wonton chef/owner Penelope Wong, Carolina Zubiate and sous chef NgocAnh Nguyen.
The Chifa Night kitchen team (left to right): Katarina Guettlein, Yuan Wonton chef/owner Penelope Wong, Carolina Zubiate and sous chef NgocAnh Nguyen. Chris Marhevka
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Chef Carolina Zubiate is bringing Chinese-Peruvian cuisine to Denver with her Chifa Night monthly pop-up series. Pulling inspiration from nearly 200 years of cultural tradition as well as her childhood memories of Lima, Peru, the dinners are a culinary exploration of the contemporary immigrant experience.

Chifa is a cuisine style popularized in the 1800s, when an influx of Chinese and other East Asian immigrants came to Peru to work on sugar plantations, railroads and other industrial projects. According to Zubiate, prolonged stays in Lima and surrounding areas often resulted in marriages of Chinese men to Peruvian women, and when homesick immigrants cooked Chinese dishes, they would incorporate Peruvian ingredients, and chifa was born.

Zubiate's Chifa Night menu is available once a month at Park Hill restaurant Yuan Wonton, at 2878 Fairfax Street. The next edition will take place on June 21 from 5 to 9:30 p.m. Reservations are available via SpotOn

Helmed by 2024 James Beard Award finalist Penelope Wong, Yuan Wonton is a food-truck-turned-brick-and-mortar that has quickly become a community staple, known for serving flavor-packed handmade dumplings and other ABC (American-Born Chinese) interpretations of Chinese fare.
click to enlarge noodle and beer stir fry on a white plate
Tallarín saltado, similar to lomo saltado, is a beef wok stir-fry made with egg noodles.
Chris Marhevka
Zubiate joined the team as a line cook last year after meeting Wong at an all-women industry dinner and lending a hand during several pop-ups and catering events. Her take on chifa first garnered Wong’s attention when Zubiate utilized Yuan Wonton’s kitchen for a local news outlet’s cooking segment during which Wong tasted a handful of dishes.

The lineup included lomo saltado, a beef wok stir fry with soy sauce and pisco (Peruvian white brandy) served with sides of French fries and white rice; and chijaukay, which is essentially crispy chicken or fish nuggets with oyster sauce, chicken broth, scallions and Peruvian pepper thickened with cornstarch and garnished with pickled daikon and more scallions.

Both dishes left an impression on Wong, who gave Zubiate the green light to launch the series. Yuan Wonton originally shared its space with two other concepts: the bakery Sweets and Sourdough; and Thuy by PKR, from the owners of Pho King Rapidos. But after Thuy moved out in January and Yuan Wonton shifted to daytime hours the following month, using the space to host Chifa Night seemed like the perfect opportunity for Zubiate to flex her creative muscles.

The first two Chifa Night pop-ups were spearheaded 90 percent by Wong and featured her father’s recipe for egg drop soup, a longtime crowd favorite at Yuan Wonton. It’s light, aromatic and seasoned to perfection, with a complexity not found in standard versions of the dish.

Also on the menu was soy kao frito, a riff on Wong’s dumplings that were fried to make them chifa style, accompanied by the 1-2-3 sauce from her egg rolls. “If you go to a chifa restaurant, it’s just a dim sum restaurant with a few different extra spices from Peru, whether that’s a dipping sauce, a Peruvian dish or the desserts — little things like that,” explains Zubiate.
click to enlarge fried dumplings on a plate
Soy kao frito are crispy fried pork and shrimp dumplings.
Chris Marhevka
This menu reflects Zubiate’s personal journey, as she immigrated from Peru with her family when she was thirteen. With the state of Peru’s economy so low at the time, theft and violent crime were on the rise. Zubiate shares that her family has experienced those dangers firsthand; her mother was once kidnapped and her sister was robbed at gunpoint. “They just wanted to give us a better and safer future, and I think that they found that here would be best," she notes.

As a timid teen growing up in Virginia, Zubiate was often teased by both her American and Hispanic classmates. "Not only was the language hard, but then you have people picking at you — for your slang, not talking like them, looking like them, dressing like them," she recalls.

She found refuge in cooking, taking high school courses and competing in local competitions. She spent her twenties working her way up the ranks in prominent Washington, D.C., kitchens before making her way to the Mile High City.

The brutal culinary scene in D.C. provided her with hard-earned life lessons, an exceptional palate and an impressive array of expert techniques, but the best mentor, she says, has been time itself. Zubiate shares that it took nine years in the industry and three years of taking on solo projects to come into her own — to prioritize her mental health and to take risks and allow her food to show who she is and what she can do.

With the wisdom and guidance of her parents, the love and support of her husband of five years, Tim, and the steadfast encouragement of peers like pastry chef Carlie Brown, who convinced Zubiate to do her very first collaborative pop-up dinner back in 2021, Zubiate has a newfound confidence, evident in every bite she offers up. “I think that’s my main purpose. I like to make people smile and laugh, and I feel like I can do that with my food and a story," she says.

That confidence also helped her win the Hispanic Restaurant Association’s 2023 Hispanic Top Chef Competition.

Chifa Night, Zubiate says, instantly transports her back to late nights on the town with her grandparents or grabbing takeout with her mother, and she's been pushing her culinary boundaries with each pop-up under the guidance of Wong.
click to enlarge scallop crudo in a white bowl topped with cucumber slices
Tiradito, a Peruvian scallop crudo.
Chris Marhevka
The mission goes beyond what chifa is to explore what can be, and her contributions are starting to feel like a spectacularly in-sync dialogue of fresh ideas between herself and Wong, a trust Zubiate does not take for granted. “[Chifa Night IV] felt like fifty-fifty on ideas and back-and-forth, and it feels nice," Zubiate notes. "[Penelope] has that much trust in me to just be like, 'Yeah, sounds cool!'"

Best known for her ceviche dishes from previous pop-ups, Zubiate developed a tiradito for Chifa Night, a Peruvian crudo made with raw Hokkaido scallop in a ginger-forward leche de tigre topped with sesame, puffed rice, pickled chilies, annatto and sliced Persian cucumber. “That’s not traditionally done in chifa, but that’s us.”

Another hit from Chifa Night IV that embodied the next-gen chifa mindset was picarones, an Afro-Peruvian dessert that’s essentially a fried doughnut that Zubiate and Wong made using a mix of ube and taro in place of traditional sweet potato. It was accompanied by traditional chancaca syrup made with unrefined sugar cane, citrus rind and warm spices.
click to enlarge fried doughnuts on a stick
A version of picarones made with ube and taro.
Chris Marhevka
Zubiate is determined to continue pushing herself outside of her comfort zone with her collaborations. An upcoming guest spot at Lucina Eatery & Bar on July 27, the eve of Peruvian Independence Day, will have Zubiate supplementing Lucina’s standard menu with select dishes of her own. She says she plans to use this opportunity to highlight the various regions and cultures found within Peru, incorporating influences such as Chinese, Japanese, African and Spanish cuisine. “Just like there is so much culture in the U.S., I want people to realize it’s the same thing in different countries. This isn’t the only country that turns into a melting bowl, or whatever they call it!," she says, laughing.

On August 22, Zubiate will cook a three-course dinner at Convivio Café to showcase coastal foods from her hometown. "I want to highlight dishes that I grew up eating," she says. The recipes are inspired by the chef's grandfather, who cooked for her every day until she was fifteen.

And there will be more Chifa Night pop-ups this summer as well — look for the July and August dates to be announced in the coming weeks. “I’m happy with it being a monthly thing, which it has continued to be," Zubiate says. "I think I’m very lucky to have that, especially in a space like Penelope’s. Right now, it’s a nice way for people to get to know a part of me.”

“It just keeps me connected to everything I love," she concludes. "My country, the people I’ve always loved and I miss, and sharing fond memories, or even sometimes sad memories that have turned into good ones.”

Upcoming dates for Chifa Night will be announced via @yuanwonton on Instagram, and reservations can be made through the restaurant’s SpotOn page. For more information on Carolina Zubiate, visit carolinazubiate.com or follow her @___carolinazubiate on Instagram.
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