The family-owned Peruvian restaurant that opened 12 years ago in a converted McDonalds has received national recognition, and Gov. Ned Lamont and other state and local officials celebrated on Tuesday.
By Ronni Newton
In 2011 a family opened a Peruvian restaurant in a former McDonalds in the southeastern corner of West Hartford, and now Coracora has achieved the type of elite status that is beyond the wildest dreams of most restaurateurs.
Coracora’s founders – and the restaurant’s current owners who are the daughters of the founders – said Tuesday at a press conference held in their honor that they are extremely humbled, thrilled, and were definitely a bit shocked that they are the first Connecticut restaurant in nearly two decades to be named one of just five finalists nationwide for the prestigious James Beard Association’s “Outstanding Restaurant” award.
“If you ask my mom she would probably say that she doesn’t know because she’s really humble,” said Grecia Ludena, Coracora’s COO and co-owner with her sister, Macarena Ludena, who is the restaurant’s CEO and chef.
“To be honest, we’re really surprised that they are paying attention to our small restaurant. We serve Peruvian comfort food so that’s what people have noticed. Our food really makes you feel like you’re at home … I think that’s what they have noticed,” Grecia said.
“I think they also saw that we are helping our community, everyone that’s here,” added Macarena.
Neither Grecia nor Macarena really know what caught the attention of the James Beard Foundation, but the organization’s announcement of the finalists in late March, defines the winner as a “restaurant that demonstrates consistent excellence in food, atmosphere, hospitality, and operations, while contributing positively to its broader community.”
“This is an old McDonalds believe it or not, talk about creativity, talk about ingenious, talk about a big upgrade,” Gov. Ned Lamont said Tuesday as he celebrated Coracora along with the commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development, representatives of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, Peruvian Consul General Elvis Tuesta, West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor, state Rep. James Sanchez, and other state and local officials.
Coracora survived during the pandemic by adapting, but not losing the essential sense of hospitality they had cultivated. They transitioned to takeout immediately, and were able to utilize their drive-through window – a relic of the former McDonalds. They opened outdoor seating and reopened the dining room at limited capacity, expanding seating as permitted.
“And here you are three years later, I think going to be the national champion, the greatest restaurant in America,” Lamont said, exclaiming that it’s “high time” since it’s been more than a week since Connecticut celebrated a national championship.
“I’m so proud you’re here. I’m so proud of what this says about Connecticut, too, the incredible creativity, entrepreneurship, ingenuity, and the international flavor,” said Lamont, who later had the opportunity to sample some of Coracora’s renowned cuisine. “We welcome all in our state and I think that’s what makes the state of Connecticut special and your food emphasizes that.”
“We are thrilled,” said Cantor. “[Chef] Macarena Ludena is so incredibly creative, passionate, and we are thrilled beyond measure.”
Macarena, the daughter of Coracora founders Hector Ludena and Luisa Jimenez who immigrated to the U.S. from Coracora, Peru (the restaurant name is a nod to their former hometown), became head chef after working her way up in the restaurant – progressing from busing tables, to the dessert station, to the ceviche station, to manager. She and her sister, Grecia, are among the next generation taking over as the parents take a step back, while maintaining the same quality, culture, and atmosphere for which Coracora has become known.
“This is a treasured resource in this area of our community and we are so grateful to all the customers and the staff who have made this such a stellar place,” Cantor said.
“Connecticut has a really incredibly culinary scene but it’s so great to see Coracora here in West Hartford be recognized on a national platform. And just a huge congratulations for everything that Macarena and Grecia have done for the team here to represent Connecticut on the national scene,” said Yvette Tavares, vice president of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, “I know they don’t do it for recognition and for awards. They do it because it’s what they love, what they’re passionate about – creating food, creating experiences, embracing the community. It’s a family business, really making a difference in the local community and of course for Connecticut as a whole.”
Alexandra Daum, who was named commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Economic Development (DECD) earlier this year, said, “I am so proud of this restaurant, we are so proud of this restaurant. It is so exciting that this is the restaurant that is representing Connecticut on a national scale.”
One of DECD’s mandates is representing the state to the outside world, and Daum said it’s important to represent the whole state, and all of its cultures, which are far richer than many assume. “We’re not stuffy … this is the coolest restaurant I’ve set foot in in a long time and I’m so thrilled that a restaurant with Peruvian restaurant is representing Connecticut on a national scale and that these incredible women are representing Connecticut on a national scale. So thank you to all for making us cool and putting us on the national map.”
General Consul of Peru Elvis Tuesta also recognized Coracora and said they are a great ambassador of Peruvian food. It’s also a sign of optimism for the Peruvian community, he said.
“The Consulate of Peru is very proud of this recognition,” added Guisella Ramirez, a consular officer at consulate general of Peru in Hartford. She and Tuesta presented the Ludenas with a plaque honoring them for “promoting the Peruvian gastronomy in the United States.”
State Rep. James Sanchez, newly-elected to represent the 6th district, which includes Coracora, presented a proclamation to Coracora and its staff on behalf of the General Assembly congratulating them on the nomination as a James Beard finalist. “You are an inspiration to all whose lives you have touched and have more than earned this well-deserved nomination. You stand as a model for others to emulate,” the proclamation states.
When Corocora opened at 162 Shield Street in West Hartford 12 years ago, they developed a loyal customer base with their authentic house-made dishes made from high-quality ingredients, including some imported directly from Peru. Chicken is a perennial favorite, but Coracora’s menu also includes steaks, seafood, and stir-fried dishes like the Lomo Saltado (strips of tenderloin stir-fried with soy sauce, Aji Amarillo, onions, tomatoes, and cilantro, served over hand-cut fingerling potatoes with a side of white rice).
Peruvian comfort food can be something as simple as pasta with marinara sauce, that you might have when coming home from school or for lunch, Grecia said. “So when Peruvian people come to the restaurant, when they try that food, they will literally say ‘I feel like I’m at home, like my mom made it,'” Grecia said.
The empanadas (a choice of chicken, beef, or guava and cheese) that were served at lunch on Tuesday were all handmade. Only three people in the entire restaurant know how to make them so all of the folds are different, Macarena said.
Lunch guests also sampled Chicha Morada, a traditional (non-alcoholic) Peruvian beverage made from dried purple corn and sweetened with pineapple, lemon, and topped with mint.
The governor sampled the rotisserie chicken, and others around the table sampled a wide variety of dishes including Brass Tequenos with macho sauce (wonton wrappers filled with rotisserie chicken and mozzarella cheese), Anticuchos (marinated veal heart grilled and served on a skewer), Causa Rellena (layered mashed potato seasoned with fresh lime juice and Aji Amarillo with a chicken salad filling), Ceviche, chicken soup (made with chicken tenderloin, angel hair pasta, potato, egg, vegetables), and Chafe (Peruvian-style fried rice mixed with scallions, red bell peppers, chopped egg; all sauteed in a wok with soy sauce).
“We’re really proud to be here today. This is an incredible moment for all of us at Coracora and we couldn’t feel more grateful and honored,” said Grecia. She and Macarena – who also shared her thoughts in Spanish to those at the press conference – said it’s also an honor to be able to promote their Peruvian heritage on a national level.
Her parents have worked very hard over the years, and it’s amazing to be recognized at this level, Grecia said. “We are a family-run business and that means the world to us.”
The James Beard awards will be announced on June 5, in a ceremony at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, and Grecia said they can’t wait to represent Connecticut as well as the Peruvian culture. “If we win, this will be a win for all of us.”
This was the second year in a row that Coracora was named a James Beard semifinalist in the “Outstanding Restaurant” category. Both the restaurant, and its chef, Macarena Ludena, garnered national recognition with the announcement of their inclusion as semifinalists in 2022.
The other James Beard finalists for Outstanding Restaurant in 2023 are: Copine, Seattle, WA; Friday Saturday Sunday, Philadelphia, PA; Lucia, Dallas, TX; and Mita’s, Cincinnati, OH.
The only other Connecticut restaurants that appeared on the 2023 finalist list in any category are for “Best Chefs Northeast” and include Christian Hunter of Community Table in New Preston and Renee Touponce formerly of The Port of Call in Mystic.
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