La Capitana, A Powerful Sense of Place and Community

Introducing La Capitana

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La Capitana is located in Cayma, a quiet neighborhood in Arequipa.

When you ask locals about their favorite picantería, La Capitana inevitably comes up. Coincidentally, it was the first picantería that I tried during my first three day visit to Arequipa about a year ago. Honestly, back then, I had no idea what I was eating. I hope that these posts help you better understand and enjoy the food if you ever find yourself in Arequipa.

In trying to understand Arequipa’s culinary traditions, I returned to La Capitana to figure out what makes it a local favorite in a city full of picanterías. After interviewing  both the owners and the patrons, I came to understand how La Capitana was more than just a restaurant. The communal environment and the sense of comfort that the food evokes appeal to its clients on a deeper, more emotional level.

La Capitana, a proud purveyor of Arequipean tradition. The Arequipan flag is proudly hanging on the wall.
La Capitana, a proud purveyor of Arequipean tradition. The Arequipan flag is proudly hanging on the wall.

I’ve always been interested in a sense of place can enhance the enjoyment of food. La Capitana provides a perfect example of this.  In this post, I look at how various elements come together to make it a special place in the heart of locals.

History

La Capitana was founded over a century ago
La Capitana was founded over a century ago

The history of La Capitana is the history of four generations of a family. In 1899, Señora Trinidad Chávez founded the picantería “El Mollecito,” named after a type of tree. The name was then changed to “La Capitanita” because Señora Chávez’s husband was a captain and people nicknamed their daughter, “The Little Captain”. After Señora Chávez passed away, the daughter, Elisa, learned to cook and took over the picantería. In the process, she changed the name for final time to “La Capitana.”

Elisa and her oldest daughter, Sra. Eloísa Huerta Barbachan, dedicated their lives to honoring the picantería tradition. After the two women passed away, Sra. Eloísa’s children, Jose Diaz Huerta and Cesar Diaz Huerta, took the mantle of the family business. The two brothers continue help carry forward their family’s work in preserving a vital part of Arequipa’s culture.

Proprietors of La Capitana: José Alfonso Díaz Huerta, Luigui Gerardo Rivas Díaz, Giancarlo Palao Díaz. Not pictured: Julio César Díaz Huerta
Keeping things in the family: José Alfonso Díaz Huerta, Luigui Gerardo Rivas Díaz, Giancarlo Palao Díaz. Not pictured: Julio César Díaz Huerta (co-owner)

Tradition

With history comes traditions. In its 116 years, La Capitana  has accumulated a number of small traditions give it its charm. The most obvious of these traditions is the writing on the walls. Giancarlo said he doesn’t know when the tradition began, but signers of the wall include that of the famous local songwriter, Augusto Polo Campos. In the beginning, people used charcoal from the wood used in cooking, but eventually people began using markers. As they grow and rearrange the restaurant to accommodate more guests, they try to preserve as much of the writing as possible. You can see writing and greetings from many different languages scribbled on the wall, showing La Capitana’s reach.

If only walls had ears ...
If only walls had ears …

One of the longstanding traditions of picantería is the concept of communal tables. This tradition remains strong at La Capitana which has long tables and benches made for sharing. Oftentimes, especially midday, you’ll see workers, families, and blue collar laborers sharing table and conversation.  Many patrons think that this sense of community is an essential part of the experience of eating at La Capitana.

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Loyal customers have also started the tradition of giving La Capitana gifts which are proudly displayed throughout the restaurant.

Gifts given to La Capitana by customers
Top Left: music box given as a gift, Top Right: Closeup of dedication for music box, Bottom Left: drinking glasses given to La Capitana, Bottom Right: Several loyal customers have written poems and letters dedicated to La Capitana

The Definition of Comfort Food

Rocoto relleno fresh from the oven
Rocotos rellenos fresh from the oven

The emotional effect of the food at La Capitana goes beyond just serving plates heavy on meat and carbs. Though that combination certainly doesn’t hurt. First, there’s a certain comfort that comes from predictability. Customers know the menu at La Capitana and know what will be served each day of the week. On a deeper level, the food at  La Capitana evokes memories of food that patrons ate when growing up. The dishes also connects people with a larger sense of tradition and a connection to the past.

A Warm Introduction

While the customers are primarily locals, La Capitana is also popular among visitors. Giancarlo makes it a point to give first-time visitors a tour of the kitchen and help them order. A good place to start is the Americano which lets you sample the dishes of the day. At La Capitana, you can sample three of the dishes being served that day.

Different versions of Americanos from the same day. At La Capitana when you order an Americano, you can choose between all of the dishes served that day.
Different versions of Americanos from the same day. At La Capitana when you order an Americano, you can choose between all of the dishes served that day.

Legend has it that Americanos got their name when a traveller from North American (Americano in Spanish) visited Arequipa many years ago. He was a curious traveller and wanted to try everything so he order a little of every dish. Others liked the idea and ordered “what the Americano was getting. It caught on and the dish eventually became called the “Americano.”

Menu at La Capitana
Menu at La Capitana

I’ll let the customers tell you about their favorite dishes in the next couple of articles, but some of the dishes that La Capitana is best known for are their Chancho al Palo, Chupe de Camarones, and Pastel de Tallarin.

The Not-So-Secret Ingredient

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Wood fires give the food at La Capitana its distinctive taste

The secret ingredient that gives the food at La Capitana its unique flavor is the wood fires they use. The smoke gives the soups and other dishes cooked on the wood fire stoves a smoky flavor and additional depth. The patrons at La Capitana simultaneously associate the smoky flavor with tradition and the foods they grew up with.

Like clockwork

Cooks at La Capitana dishing out the food it's famous for
Cooks at La Capitana dishing out the food it’s famous for

I was surprised to hear that most of the cooking for the day gets done between 8 am-noon. I was even more surprised at how orderly the preparation process seemed. I’m used to kitchens that are hectic to say the least.

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Vilma peeling and cutting squash for the Ajií de clabaza

There were many cooks in the kitchen. Giancarlo told me that some of the cooks do the same task every day. Others rotate between stations. There didn’t seem to be a rigid system in place, but everyone knew what their tasks were and worked at a comfortable pace to finish everything in time for the lunch crowd.

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Janet serving estofado for the americano.

Most of the cooks were women. Knowledge of the picantería-style cooking has traditionally been passed through women. However, that is now changing as evidenced by La Capitana and La Benita de Claustros. Also, I was interested to learn that many of the cooks at La Capitana were related. Cooks often introduce family members into the trade when there are new openings.

Some more behind-the-scenes photos:

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More to Come ..

If you’re wondering why I haven’t said more about the dish themselves, you’ll have to check out the next post. I ask the customers at La Capitana about their favorite dishes.

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Thank you to Giancarlo Palao Díaz and his family for showing me around La Capitana, giving me full access to the restaurant, and answering all of my questions.

And thank you to Paola Cuba Castillo for re-introducing me to La Capitana and helping with the initial translation. If you’re looking for a place to stay in Arequipa, check out their homestay, Homestay Diaz Cuba.

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