From Peru to You!

Ceviche, a recommended dish to try at Panka Peruvian Restaurant on Ingersoll Avenue.

Writer: Hailey Allen
Photos: Duane Tinkey

Mariela Maya is the vibrant owner of Panka Peruvian Restaurant, on Ingersoll Avenue, and its spinoff, Panka Coffee & More (formerly Panka Peruvian Chicken), in the Drake neighborhood. Some of her first food memories mingle with the rich aromas in her grandmother’s kitchen in Cuzco, Peru, way up in the Andes mountains.

“In Peru, everything is around food — getting together, cooking something,” said Maya, who grew up in Lima and inherited her love of good food from her mom’s side of the family. She has a deep appreciation for the bonds a family forges over shared meals.

Mariela Maya

Maya immigrated to the United States about 20 years ago, when she moved to Rockford, Illinois, with her husband at the time and their young daughter. They spent a lot of weekends nearby in picture-postcard Galena, where Maya frequented a favorite coffee shop.

“It was so cute and relaxed,” she recalled. “I wondered what it would be like to be an owner there. But back then, that was just a dream.” At the time, she was a manager with IHG Hotels and Resorts, before she spent some time in real estate. Little did she know her dream would come true — twice.

Maya’s warm and welcoming personality is evident as soon as you step into either of her establishments. Her smile radiates a sense of friendliness that makes you feel like you’re in Maya’s own home, which makes sense, considering both restaurants are family affairs. Her eldest daughter helps with marketing and social media, her son is a server, and her youngest daughter sometimes lends a hand in the kitchen. Maya leans on a trio of mentors — two sisters and a brother-in-law — who run their own restaurants in Rockford, Illinois, and Medellín, Colombia. They share tips and recipes and help one another solve problems.

“Working with your family gives you a different perspective,” said Maya, whose son likes to cook and whose youngest daughter takes culinary classes at Central Academy. “It’s great because they want to be involved.” They joke about who will eventually take over.

Traditions and trends

Like American cuisine, Peruvian food is a melting pot of cultures, spiced by Indigenous Incans, Spanish colonizers and the Africans they enslaved, and Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s. As just one example, Maya mentioned arroz chaufa, a fried rice dish from the Chinese-Peruvian cuisine known as chifa. Many of the dishes draw from the country’s diverse geography, including seafood from the Pacific coast and more than 4,000 kinds of potatoes that Peruvians have cultivated over centuries.

Maya’s eyes light up when she talks about her journey as a restaurateur, and she takes pride in introducing Iowans to the flavors of her homeland. But she finds inspiration even beyond her own roots. When she opened Panka Coffee, she envisioned it as the coffee shop from her dreams but with a twist: It serves street food from across Latin America.

“Right now I have a chef from Colombia who worked with my sister for 15 years,” Maya said. “I also have one girl from El Salvador, and she’s making awesome pupusas. Another guy from Colombia makes empanadas, and my husband is from Venezuela, so I have arepas.”

“I’m an immigrant,” she added. “For me, it’s important to include other immigrants, all of their countries, every person. That diversity is amazing.”

That goes for the decor, too. While the Ingersoll spot is sleek and upscale, at Panka Coffee, the walls are covered in handmade neon posters. Maya sourced original advertisements for ’70s bands that played chicha, which mixes traditional Andean music and rock.

The future is fusion

Even after opening two restaurants, Maya is still dreaming. Someday, she’d like to open a third spot that evokes Peru’s thriving sushi scene. The Ingersoll restaurant already offers a Peruvian-style sashimi menu, but Maya sees an opportunity to showcase even more of Peru’s Asian influences. She’d start with sushi acevichado, which is made like ceviche, with white fish cured with lime juice, or maki rolls filled with ají de gallina, a creamy shredded chicken.

If or when that new dream comes true, Maya knows she has support from her family and the community here in her adopted home. “It’s awesome,” she said. “It’s fun to go back into the kitchen and look around, like, ‘Oh my gosh, yes, I did it.’ And if I did that, I can do more.”

Peru-se the menu

When we interviewed Mariela Maya, she recommended a few specific dishes for newcomers to the Panka Peruvian Restaurant on Ingersoll Avenue. Since the kitchen team makes everything from scratch, they customize dishes to suit dietary restrictions. They also serve vegan and gluten-free options.

Aji de gallina: a creamy chicken comfort food that’s popular in Lima. Panka’s recipe comes from Maya’s grandmother, who used to make it for Maya’s birthday.

Pescado a lo macho de camarones: a cooked seafood dish with a kick. The spicy sauce blends three kinds of peppers.

Ceviche (pictured above): different combinations of fish, veggies and sauces. Most variations start with raw fish marinated and cured with the citric acid in a lemon or lime juice mix called “leche de tigre” (tiger’s milk).

Lomo saltado: a dish made from beef and potatoes. Maya recommends it for folks who don’t like fish but still want to try a Peruvian classic.

On Feb. 26, Mariela Maya announced she would be closing Panka Coffee & More. The Drake location will serve it’s last rotisserie chicken March 10, but look out for its popular dishes like arepas and pupusas now available at her Ingersoll restaurant.

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