NORTH CENTER — For the better part of three years, the empty storefront at 4024 N. Lincoln Ave. has been a neighborhood curiosity, particularly when a "coming soon" gift shop never materialized.
Eni Cadena, who bought the building, a former dollar store, in 2011, apologizes for the confusion but thinks Via Lima, the Peruvian restaurant she aims to open in mid-March, will prove worth the wait.
Of her decision to scrap the gift store concept, she said: "Right before I started, something told me, 'Don't do it.' So I changed gears. I was listening to my soul. Now that I look back, I wasn't ready."
As she took a break to figure out her next move, Cadena, a native of Peru who moved to Chicago in the 1980s to attend college, spent a lot of time in the kitchen with her mother, and the idea for Via Lima was born.
"There are other Peruvian restaurants, but not at the level I want to do," said Cadena.
She brought in Jeremy McGovern as chef, whose experience includes an apprenticeship of sorts at Tanta, an upscale Peruvian restaurant in River North.
McGovern impressed his new boss when, during the course of his interview, he offered to cook her a tasting meal that same evening.
"He had a lot of initiative," said Cadena.
For those unfamiliar with Peruvian cuisine, Cadena is quick to explain what it's not.
"Most people know Mexican food, so it's logical to compare it, but it's totally different," she said.
Ceviche — made from raw fish marinated in citrus juices — is perhaps the best-known Peruvian dish, but the cuisine also draws on Asian, French and Italian influences, said Cadena.
"We have a lot of small plates, like tapas," she said, and aji peppers — Peruvian chili peppers — feature prominently in seasonings.
Via Lima's menu, which is still under development, will offer McGovern's updated take on Cadena's family recipes.
He gave, as an example, Lomo Saltado, a traditional meat-and-potato Peruvian dish that combines french fries, beef strips and stir-fried onions and tomatoes.
"My twist might be yucca fries, grape tomatoes and grass-fed tenderloin," McGovern said. "We're elevating the ingredients and the techniques, as well as the plating."
Assuming her liquor license comes through — "I need to get on my knees and pray" — Cadena also plans on serving Pisco, a Peruvian brandy made from grapes.
Having trusted her instincts this far, Cadena said she believed North Center was ready for a new kind of dining experience.
"I think it's going to be the next wave," she said of Peruvian food. "But the public will decide. People will say 'yes' or 'no'."
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