On many days outside his Huntington Beach café, owner Juan Carlos Santibáñez looks out onto the ocean across the street, feeling lucky and surprised at his life’s latest turn.
About two months ago, he opened LuLi Café, a little eatery of his own culinary imagination. He named it after his Peruvian grandmother.
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The little spot in a strip mall at Warner Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway, across the street from the Bolsa Chica State Beach parking lot, offers sorbets, typical American diner and breakfast fare, as well as Peruvian dishes, including Peruvian-style tamales, ceviche and seco de carne (braised beef in a cilantro sauce, served with rice).
“I’m still playing with the menu,” he said with a smile.
But Santibáñez is part of the attraction, too.
His infectious, positive attitude is apparent near the café’s entrance. Santibáñez wrote some thoughts there on the day he opened LuLi Café, and they’ve remained there since: “Today is my day. Very proud. Very honored. Very humbled. Very grateful. Very happy. Love the life you live and you’ll live the life you love.”
“I want people to feel like they’re at home,” Santibáñez said. “I don’t want you to do anything but eat and enjoy yourself.”
Santibáñez is living his own proud and grateful American Dream. He first came to the United States from his native Peru in 1989 with $300 in his pocket.
He was a valet driver for many years, parking cars in and around Hollywood.
“Here I am, coming from South America, watching all the American movies, and all of a sudden Mike Tyson is in front of me,” Santibáñez said of his early California days.
Santibáñez ended up running his own valet parking company that served Mr. Stox, a landmark Anaheim restaurant.
But then he pivoted to running operations for a moving company. However, during the Great Recession in the late 2000s, Santibáñez lost everything, including his house.
By chance he ended up running into a friend at Costco who convinced him to go into the restaurant business.
That led to him managing Barolo by the Sea, an Italian restaurant on Balboa Island, and then a small café at the Palisades Tennis Club in Newport Beach, where he had played.
In October, wanting to go into business for himself, he opened LuLi Café at 3801 Warner Ave in Huntington Beach. The suite formerly was Secret Spot, a vegan restaurant that has since moved to another site nearby.
LuLi Café is small — only about 10 chairs inside — and modestly decorated. But what is on the walls means a lot: pictures of LuLi, 88. She is overjoyed at her grandson’s success in America.
“She’s always happy. Smiling,” Santibáñez said.
Santibáñez, who lives in Huntington Beach, said he remains inspired to serve others in the hospitality industry based on an experience he had in Peru.
As a teenager, he once drove to a remote inn with some friends, stayed the night but ditched before paying the bill. Then, several months later, he found himself back at that place with his family, who incidentally knew the owner.
The owner didn’t recognize Santibáñez at first, but upon learning he was the kid who had bailed on the bill earlier, he didn’t seem to take the slight to heart. Rather, the owner prepared Santibáñez’s family a custom-made dinner.
After taking their order, the owner donned swim gear, grabbed a harpoon and waded beyond the waves to catch the crab, octopus and rest of the seafood himself.
For Santibáñez, it was an act of unforgettable, heartfelt hospitality.
“That experience has never left my mind,” he said.
So don’t be surprised if one day you see Santibáñez grabbing a snorkel and seeing what’s beyond the water’s edge across the street from his restaurant, just to make his customers happy.