Del Mar couple wins locals’ hearts with Peruvian cuisine

By Claire Harlin

Cafe Secret is no secret anymore.

Rustic and small, the Camino Del Mar restaurant does not visually make itself apparent from the street, but passing by during dinner time or weekend brunch, one might notice a completely packed outdoor patio. Or on a Wednesday, they may hear the guitar strumming and vocals of a live musician.

For years, the former coffee joint may have been a bit more of a secret to the community. But when Daniella and Bratzo Basagoitia assumed ownership two years ago and began putting their passion and culture into the place — now a full-service restaurant serving authentic Peruvian cuisine — popularity has soared and the vivacious young couple continues to develop Cafe Secret’s new identity.

“At first we wanted a name that represented the restaurant, a Peruvian name,” said Daniella. “But we got the business with the name, and we’ve put so much love into the name and everything it has behind it. It fits perfect and it would be sinful to take the essence out of it.”

The couple first opened Cafe Secret for breakfast and lunch, adding dinner on Fridays only. Gradually they have added dinner on other nights of the week, and only two weeks ago the restaurant came full circle by adding Tuesday night to complete the schedule.

The schedule has not only grown, but the menu has, as well. The Basagoitias have not only added items to meet the demand of the community — such as the best-selling “pan con chicharron” sandwich that was formerly an off-menu “secret” — but they have expanded the selection of one of the things they do best: ceviche. Cafe Secret offers a “ceviche bar” of seven different types of the dish, which can be mixed and matched. The ceviches vary from more traditional recipes to exotic mixes that incorporate Peruvian corn, sweet potatoes and mangos.

The magic that happens in Cafe Secret’s tiny kitchen dates back to the couple’s childhood years in Peru, where good food and great company was a part of life.

The two moved separately to the United States more than a decade ago, and they were brought together by a mutual friend in Miami, where Daniella lived and Bratzo was visiting from San Diego. As fate would have it, they were coincidentally reunited years later when Daniella moved to San Diego for a job.

In the time the couple had away from work — she was working in retail and he worked in British Petroleum’s environmental compliance department — the two shared their passion for Peruvian food.

“We lived in a tiny little place but we’d have like 20 people over and cook for everyone,” Daniella said. “We’d make all the great dishes we used to eat growing up — the flavors from our childhood memories.”

Bratzo remembers his entire family in Peru coming together for big, baked lunches every Saturday.

“So much there revolves around home-cooked food, whereas here people often eat out every day,” Bratzo said.

The Basagoitias are first-time restaurateurs who took a U-turn in their careers in an unsure economy to follow their passion and build something they could call their own. When a friend told Daniella and Bratzo, who were living in Del Mar, that Cafe Secret was seeking new leadership, Bratzo marched down to the cafe and spoke with the owner that very day.

“I didn’t even know she was the owner and I started talking to her about my idea for the place, and it just clicked,” Bratzo said. “She said ‘You need to cook for us and if we like the food we can go from there.’ We made empanadas and a pork sandwich and they loved it. They gave us three weeks to open.”

Bratzo knew his recipes and he had worked in a high-volume restaurant before, but never a Peruvian restaurant, which makes complex dishes and uses a variety of rare and fresh ingredients. He trained intensely under a close family friend in Peru during the weeks leading up to the cafe’s opening.

The Basagoitias treat their kitchen at Cafe Secret as if it were their kitchen at home. They often venture off the menu to please customers, Bratzo said, especially kids. They have also been known to adjust the level of spiciness when necessary or make dishes suitable for vegans or those with other needs.

“It’s like your mom’s kitchen, but producing massive amounts of feel-good food for anyone’s desires,” Daniella said. “We keep it casual and that’s why we refuse to go to cloth napkins. We want to encourage people to feel like they are at home.”

For more information, visit; (858) 792-0821; Address: 1140 Camino Del Mar, Del Mar.