Slow Foods Restaurant, Amici (El Qero), Encinitas, CA

November 27, 2011, Judd

America is finally starting to catch on to the slow food movement. In the U.S., there are over 140 local chapters of Slow Foods USA. The slow foods movement was started in 1986 by an Italian journalist who wanted to combat the fast-food onslaught that has wreaked havoc on the physical and social health of millions in America and worldwide.

There’s a slow foods restaurant in Encinitas. It’s called Amici and it’s discreetly sandwiched between D and E streets on the west side of the 101. Judging by its name, you’d think Amici is an Italian restaurant. But thankfully it’s not, because Encinitas needs another Italian diner on the 101 like we need another month of Red Tide.

“Slow Food is community-oriented,” said owner Monica Szepesy (ignore the “z” and rhyme it with actor Joe Pesci). She was born in Bolivia and raised in Cuzco, Peru by a Hungarian father and Peruvian mother, Carmen, who is Amici’s server.

Szepesy has also lived in Chile, Jamaica, Honduras, Pakistan, Washington, D.C., Seattle, New York and Italy.

It was in Italy, the birthplace of the slow food movement, that Szepesy was exposed to the centuries-old tradition of preparing and regarding a meal as if it were a craft and an opportunity for family bonding; instead of being treated as something coming off an assembly line destined to be vacuumed down throats within five minutes.

“Slow foods also involves stewardship of the land and producing food in an ecologically-sound fashion,” said Szepesy, who buys from as many local organic farmers as possible and offers on the menu the Peruvian dietary staple of quinoa (“Kee-Nwa”), an ancient grain that long predates whole wheat and is high in protein and easy to digest. Quinoa thrives in high altitudes and is harvested during the windy season.

Szepesy decorated her family restaurant (her brother Michael also works here) thematically like the food it serves-like it’s a world away. Burntby- the-sun orange paint illuminates traditional Peruvian ceramics. Framed paintings depict scenes of Quechuan women carrying atados, bundles that hold precious cargo: baby, firewood and fresh veggies from the market.

The 30 seats in the restaurant are covered by traditional Peruvian loomed cloth, typical of the Lake Titicaca region.

“It’s my desire to represent the┬árich culture of where I came from,” says Szepcsy, who plans on renaming her restaurant in the near future, precisely to avoid being mistaken as Italian.

“El Q’uero” will be the restaurant’s new name, which in Spanish literally means both a vessel and a modern-day descendant of the Incas.

In 2000, Szepesy visited Encinitas (her older brother, a Marine, was stationed at Camp Pendleton) and sold crafts at the Seaside Bazaar. At the time, she planned on opening a restaurant in Cuzco, but instead, she fell in love with Encinitas.

Szepesy’s restaurant officially opened for dinner on Valentine’s Day, 2001. Thus far she has created an under-the-radar dining gem in Encinitas, bringing to the community the feeling of an era when gathering around the dining table was an unrushed experience of pleasure, with family together, recalling simpler times.

Judd Handler is a freelance writer and wellness/lifestyle coach in Encinitas, California. He surfs uncrowded, fun reef breaks; plays instrumental alternate-tuning guitar; goes hiking in the backcountry; and is amazed on a daily basis by just being alive.