With plans to move to Peru, owner Monica Szepesy is training her son Niko, 18, to run Q’ero restaurant in Encinitas
Twenty years ago, Monica Szepesy’s dreams of moving to Peru to open a restaurant were dashed when her apartment was burglarized and she lost everything of value that she owned.
But instead of giving up, Szepesy changed course and instead opened a Peruvian restaurant in her longtime hometown of Encinitas. The popular restaurant, Q’ero, will celebrate its 20th anniversary at 564 S. Coast Highway 101 next summer.
Over the years, Szepesy has loved sharing Peruvian and South American cuisine and culture with her customers at Q’ero, which she runs with her her 18-year-old son, Niko Szepesy Ortega, and her mother, Peruvian-born Carmen Santander Szepesy of Oceanside. But some dreams never die, and in January she will finally follow her heart and move to Cusco, Peru, where she plans to work in the luxury travel business.
Initially she planned to close Q’ero to embark on the next chapter of her life. But Niko had other plans.
“I had decided that maybe it was time to call it a day,” said Szepesy, 47. “I told Niko I had this opportunity and I was going to let the restaurant go and he said ‘let me take a crack at it.’ I remember the day it resonated with me. He said ‘my entire life you have talked about living in Cusco. Go!’”
As the son of a single mother, Niko said he can’t remember a time where his life wasn’t connected with Q’ero. So, allowing the restaurant to die was unthinkable.
“We moved a lot when I was growing up so the restaurant became my home,” he said. “I love working with my family, I love making our food and I love sharing the story of our food with people.”
Despite Niko’s youth, Szepesy said her son is mature for his age and has a lot of experience. He started at Q’ero as a dishwasher, then worked his way up over the years running the pantry, busing and waiting tables and, most recently, cooking. He also runs social media for the family’s Panqa aji chile sauce, which has a color portrait of a cherubic 2-year-old Niko on every bottle.
“He has a good palate and he’s a natural in the front of the house. Now that he can cook he can train people and he knows all the stories,” Szepesy said.
Szepesy’s love for South American culture stretches back two generations before her. Her paternal grandmother was from Ecuador and her father, Gene Szepesy of Oceanside, spent nearly 40 years working around the globe. His first job was in the Peace Corps, where he met his wife Carmen in Cusco. They moved back to the U.S. where he trained as a foreign service officer. That job took him to nearly a dozen countries including Colombia, Pakistan, Honduras, Serbia-Montenegro, Mexico, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kenya and South Africa. Szepesy, their middle child, was born in Bolivia. Her younger brother, Michael, was born in Chile. Her older brother, Jim, was born in New York.
Gene said he realizes that the constant travel was sometimes difficult for his children because they had to change schools constantly, but it had its benefits. “It was a good life,” he said. “It was broadening for them.”
Monica Szepesy said traveling helped her developed a passion for international cultures and ethnic cuisine. At Sarah Lawrence College she earned a degree in cultural anthropology and French literature and her thesis was on colonial symbolism.
“Moving all the time exposed us to a lot of diversity,” she said. “If more people traveled the world, it would be a better place. If people sat around the table with people from other cultures and countries they would realize the vastness of the world and that we’re just one part of it.”
Because the family moved so often, the one city Szepesy grew to consider “home” was Cusco, where she learned to cook in her grandmother’s kitchen.
“I’ve yet to find a place that inspires me more than Cusco,” she said. “There is such a pride of culture and place there. You can really feel it when you go. And Peruvians are so proud of their cuisine now. It’s been named one of the top culinary destinations in the world.”
After college, Szepesy spent a year in Italy studying the cuisine. Convinced she wanted to open her own restaurant, she moved to Seattle and learned the food trade working for a catering company. Eventually, she and her brother, Michael, traveled to Cusco to scout locations for the restaurant. When they ran out of money in 2000, they moved to an apartment in Encinitas and started selling Peruvian arts, crafts and food products at area farmers markets and street fairs with the goal of raising enough money to open the restaurant in Cusco. Then the burglary occurred.
Undaunted, Szepesy found a leasing agent and rented the former Encinitas Danish Bakery space in April 2000. Four months later, she opened Q’ero. The restaurant is named for the Q’ero, a community of spiritual indigenous peoples who live high in the Andes Mountains near Cusco. In true Peruvian style, Szepesy has decorated virtually every square inch of Q’ero with Peruvian paintings, wall art, weavings, pottery and religious statuary, which are also for sale. She travels to Cusco two to three times a year to replace the decor that is sold.
The menu at Q’ero reflects the kind of dishes Peruvians eat every day. There are classic empanadas, which are handmade by Carmen, as well as calamari a la diablada, an appetizer of crispy squid and mushrooms with chiles and onions. One of the heartier entrees is sudado de pescadora, a pan-roasted salmon in a broth of chicha de jora (fermented corn beer). The house drink is chicha morada, which Szepesy calls the “Kool-Aid of Peru.” It’s a non-alcoholic iced drink made from slow-boiled purple Inca corn with cinnamon, cloves and orange juice. There are also dishes from several South and Central American countries, like saltena de pollo, a sauteed chicken street food from Bolivia; arepas, cheese-filled cornmeal cakes from Venezuela; and tres leches from Honduras.
Over the years, Q’ero has weathered many economic ups and downs. But the hardest blow came early last year when she was forced to close Q’ero’s sister restaurant, Casa del Q’ero in Cardiff, due to rising rent and labor costs and the difficulty finding line cooks. The experience was so bruising that Szepesy said it forced her to re-evaluate her life.
“I was exhausted and overwhelmed. It was such a struggle. I realized I wasn’t living the life that I wanted and I needed to do something about it,” she said.
Having worked in corporate travel years before, Szepezy started looking into a travel-related job that would take her, at last, to Cusco. She landed it a few months ago, a bi-national position that will have her designing luxury experiences for Aracari Travel. She will spend six months of the year in Peru, alternating between Encinitas and Cusco every three months.
Niko will manage the restaurant in her absence with his grandmother, Carmen, who works five days a week overseeing the restaurant’s quality control and making the empanadas.
To prepare for her departure, Niko said he’s been working for months in the kitchen to learn all of the recipes and fine-tuning his skills as a front-of-the-house manager. He has even been teaching his mom how to use smartphone apps to keep better track of expenses and accounting.
“I’m just now appreciating how hard she has been working all these years,” Niko said. “She was always doing so much to take care of us. Now it’s my turn.”
— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune