Lorena Garcia opened Chica, her take on Latin food, on Mother’s Day 2017 at the Venetian, making her the first Latin American woman to open a restaurant on the Las Vegas Strip. The Venezuelan-born chef who has appeared on Top Chef Masters, America’s Next Great Restaurant, and countless shows on Telemundo teamed up with restaurateur John Kunkel’s 50 Eggs, which owns Yardbird Southern Table & Bar next door, on her first large-scale restaurant, a risky gamble that paid off with a different type of cuisine at the Italian-themed resort.
Garcia’s menu of Venezuelan, Peruvian, Brazilian, Mexican, and Argentinian dishes dips into her grandmother and mother’s recipe books and expands them to include foods Garcia discovered during her travels to Latin America and living in Argentina.
“It’s risky because have to educate consumer,” Garcia says on the brink of her restaurant’s second anniversary. “They had to be open to new flavors and a style of cuisine. We really bring the flavors of Latin America.”
Garcia originally wanted to be a lawyer, even earning a law degree at Santa Maria University in Caracas, Venezuela, but ended up attending cooking school at Johnson & Wales University. She apprenticed at the Ritz in Paris, and then worked her way through Italy, Japan, Korea, Thailand, and China to learn different cooking techniques. By 2002, she opened Food Café followed by Elements Tierra in Miami’s Design District in Miami, and she sold both in 2008.
By 2011, she started opening restaurants in airports with Lorena Garcia Cocina, a healthier take on traditional Latin cuisine, in Miami, Lorena Garcia Tapas y Cocina in Dallas, and Lorena Garcia Tapas in Atlanta. She even revamped the Taco Bell Cantina menu.
But the itch to team up with Kunkel, a friend for years, spurred her to brainstorm dishes and a restaurant to showcase her work. She knew diners would understand Mexican cuisine, but she counted on the Venetian to “understand their demographics and the people coming to our hotel. This is a celebration of our culture,” Garcia says. “We see people coming in from all aspects of life to the Venetian. This is culture through cuisine. They’re in love with the food.”
From the restaurant’s library to the ceviche grill to the lounge, Garcia wanted the decor to represent the traditions of Latin America. The furniture, for example, was made in Mexico. Handmade vintage tiles, bright accents, and colonial-styled ironwork decorate the space with large pieces of art on the walls representing a female-centric theme.
A large bar sits in the center of the room with smaller rooms hiding in different nooks. The kitchen features a built-in rotisserie wall and custom churrasco grill. Fresh ceviches and salads are made at an ice bar open to the customer, while handmade arepas are formed at an interactive counter.
“I always want to make sure that the soul, the real taste, are staying true to our dishes,” Garcia says of the menu. “I think we have achieved that. The quality is there. We’re making sure everyone has that connection. There’s so much love and tradition attached to them.”
Since opening, Garcia added a breakfast and a weekend brunch to the mix, serving dulce de leech French toast, Peruvian skirt steak and eggs, a Benedict cazuela with poached eggs, cheese arepas, and chorizo made in house, and Mexican fried chicken and waffles.
“We wanted a menu that was concise but packed but concentrated enough but able to open the doors,” she says. “We’ve been beefing up and intensifying menu in the past six months.”
For lunch or dinner, Garcia recommends sitting at the ceviche counter to watch dishes made, then ordering chargrilled empanadas made with beef, sweet plantains, black beans, queso fresco, and Brazilian pico. Her Meyer lemon chicken takes two days to prepare with macerated lemon and lime, while the Peruvian fish fry uses Pacific striped bass that’s deboned and then deep fried for a flaky fish. Her mac con queso comes with Peruvian corn, hearts of palm, and spinach while hoppin’ José rice features black-eyed peas, cilantro, pancetta, and avocados.
“You can go to Chica every single day and eat something different,” Garcia says. “I make food that you crave.”
Garcia says she’s working with Kunkel on new locations for Chica. “We’re ready to open more around the world.”
Chica celebrates its second anniversary with a brunch on Sunday, May 12, from 10 a.m. to noon. The event is part of Vegas Uncork’d. Tickets are $150.
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