When asked why he chose to devote his life to cooking, chef Santiago Vargas laughs out loud. “Because I’m crazy!” he says.

Standing behind the counter of Mikasa Criolla Empanadas in the S&W Market, he clarifies: “I am crazy about cooking and cooking for people. It is love. I can communicate better with my food than with talking.”

Vargas particularly wants to communicate the flavors he grew up with in Lima, Peru. “There is not a lot of diversity in Latin American cuisine in Asheville,” he says. “There is a lot of Mexican and there is some Central American, but there is no Peruvian.”

Vargas admits that Peruvian cuisine is hard to define. “Peru is a big country with mountains, coast and rainforest,” he explains. “We have many microclimates and a lot of diversity of soil, so we grow everything you can imagine. We have 4,000 varieties of potatoes and maybe just 10 [fewer types of corn] than Mexico.” Peru is also home to numerous indigenous peoples as well as communities of immigrants from China, Japan, Africa, France, Spain, Italy, and more, all of whom have impacted the country’s cuisine in some way.

Both of Vargas’s parents cooked, and he started helping his mother make desserts and creating simple breakfasts for himself when he was just 8 years old. “There was always good food on our table, and always love,” he remembers fondly.

At age 18, though financial resources were limited, he enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in the Peruvian capital, Lima. He was drawn to catering over restaurant work and was just 20 when he did his first wedding for 120 guests; his mother did the desserts.

Around 2006, Vargas moved to New York to expand his career, and after a seven-year stint working for two large companies with multiple restaurants, he made a trip to Asheville to visit a cousin who was married to one of the founders of the Out of the Blue Peruvian Fusion Cuisine food truck.

Vargas never looked back. “I loved the area. New York was so intense, and Asheville was quiet and peaceful,” he recalls. “The truck brought me back to cooking my food.”

His work with Out of the Blue brought him recognition around Western North Carolina for his cuisine as well as top finishes in local food competitions. In 2019, Out of the Blue was retired from service, and Vargas began doing private dinners and popups. In early 2020, he teamed up with Mexican-born chef Ricardo Carrasco to turn Polanco on Market Street into a tapas restaurant, a plan stymied by the pandemic then ultimately abandoned.

In 2021, real estate broker and fellow Peruvian Ana Austin discovered Vargas on Instagram when she moved from Miami to Asheville. Austin had an idea to open a restaurant in Asheville devoted to Nikkei cuisine, a Japanese-Peruvian fusion concept popular in Peru. The roots of Nikkei go back to the late 1800s when a large migration of Japanese citizens came to Peru to work the sugar cane farms. “Those two cultures met in food,” Vargas says. “It created amazing flavors and dishes.”

Rather than open a restaurant, Austin and Vargas created Mikasa AVL, an umbrella for a private chef and catering company. The business drew from Peru’s rich immigrant profile to produce monthly multi-course dinners in private homes and small venues with the themes Mikasa Nikkei, Mikasa Chifa (Peruvian-Chinese), Mikasa Nostra (Peruvian-Italian), and Mikasa BBQ (Peruvian-Argentinian).

One of those dinners was held in the private event room in the basement of S&W Market, the historic former S&W Cafeteria that re-opened in June 2021 as a food hall devoted to local businesses. When a space in the S&W became available in late 2022, Austin and Vargas grabbed it. In December of that year, they opened Mikasa Criolla, with a menu devoted to Peruvian street food.

A few months in, the space proved to be too small for the opening menu of salads, stews, paninis, and empanadas, and the ticket time for guests looking for a quick lunch was too long. It was also clear that the empanadas ruled.

Austin — who runs the business side — rebranded Mikasa Criolla to Mikasa Criolla Empanadas. Vargas pivoted to focus on expanding the empanada selection, which now includes vegetarian, chicken, pork, seafood, beef, and sweet options. One of the most popular is the aji de gallina, which is based on a traditional home-cooked chicken chili dish. “There are many ways to make it, but this is my way,” says Vargas with a smile. He marinates chicken in a sofrito of onions, garlic, and aji amarillo peppers — an orange Peruvian chili pepper — adds parmesan cheese, and folds it all into the empanada dough.

Another top seller is the beef asado empanada with a filling of sliced beef round braised with herbs, bay leaves, and spices mixed with caramelized onions and gravy and onions. The vegetarian queso con choclo option (choclo is a variety of Peruvian corn) turns the popular street food of corn on the cob swathed in butter and queso fresco (white cheese) into an empanada – minus the cob.

Vargas’s chicken fried rice empanada is inspired by his mother’s home-cooked fried rice, and the pork tamal choclo is a fusion of pork tamales and fresh corn with sliced black olives and pickled onion. The chorizo empanada is evocative of Peru’s popular choripán street sandwiches made with grilled sausage on French bread with chimichurri.

Every empanada is built upon Vargas’s “formula” for the dough which, he says, includes flour, water, and “lots and lots of butter.”

This year, the business will launch a line of packaged, frozen, cook-at-home empanadas. And though Vargas and Austin intend to eventually open a full-service restaurant either in Asheville or Charlotte, Mikasa Criolla Empanadas is their calling card.

“Sometimes people ask if we have something besides empanadas,” Vargas says. “We say no, we have empanadas. Then I watch them bite into an empanada, and they smile. I know I will see them again.”

For more on Mikasa Criolla Empanadas, visit mikasacriolla.com.

Written by Kay West