South L.A. Food Diaries: Peruvian restaurant Caveman Kitchen goes back to basics

A taste of home · Wilson Salguero opened Caveman Kitchen in 2007 and watched it survive through the Great Recession. Combining Peruvian and Cuban cuisines, Salguero aimed to bring foods he grew up eating to South L.A., like the saltados (pictured) and burgers. (Kanak Kapur | Daily Trojan)

Every part of Wilson Salguero’s restaurant was built with intention and consideration.

The Caveman Kitchen owner sits with his hands folded on a table that he built and painted himself, examining the colorful wooden boards he constructed that run the interior of the restaurant’s walls.

The simple touches of the restaurant’s decorations, illustrations by local artists and the menu itself are inspired by Salguero’s Latin American roots and his desire to go back to basics.

It’s easy to find something to love about Caveman Kitchen for students, neighborhood residents or cops on a lunch break. Customers can enjoy the unique bamboo ornaments on the restaurant’s windows as they eat lomo saltado — a Peruvian dish that consists of ribeye steak, fries, tomatoes, onions, rice and Salguero’s  famous “green heat sauce.”

By incorporating a caveman-like theme throughout the restaurant’s dishes, Salguero wants his patrons to go back to the simple aspects of the food they enjoy, particularly in the chicken rotisserie over premium firewood dish for which his joint is famous.

“There is a theory that there was a bird on a tree and some lightning hit it,” Salguero said. “[That’s how] man discovered fire and …  how the rotisserie chicken came about. We started eating the way we were meant to eat: more natural and healthy.”

Kanak Kapur | Daily Trojan

Salguero, who is from El Salvador, grew up in Koreatown before moving closer to USC, which his best friend attended. His familiarity with the neighborhood led him to open a restaurant on Vermont Avenue.

“This is my neighborhood,” Salguero said. “What’s beautiful about my restaurant is I think it attracts everybody … it’s a nice mix of different people.”

Salguero’s past with and commitment to flavor diversity run through the restaurant’s eclectic menu, which features mixed recipes inspired by his Salvadoran roots with Peruvian and Cuban influences.

“Most of the dishes that you see here are basically something that I grew up eating that I love,” Salguero said.

Salguero moved to South L.A. with the goal of bringing great food to the area, but the journey was not easy.

He had to build the restaurant from the ground up in an empty lot, and in 2007 — a year after the restaurant opened — the Great Recession hit.

Right as Caveman Kitchen started attracting more business, ingredients became more expensive and customers began losing their jobs, so they didn’t spend as much, Salguero recounted. The restaurant struggled through its first three years, but finally made its mark.

According to Salguero, what kept him going was his vision for his restaurant — a place where the ingredients were natural and high-quality.

“I started with the idea … that it was going to be rotisserie chicken — fresh, something wholesome, nothing fried — and fresh-made hamburgers — quality beef, fresh patties,” he said. “[This was] complemented with fresh cut fries, instead of those cold, frozen, processed french fries.”

Salguero emphasized that the chicken was quite literally the heart of the operation: In fact, the first thing that he placed in the restaurant was the rotisserie.

After setting it down, it was too heavy to move, so he designed the rest of the establishment around it.

His focus on chicken shines with the Cave Club Sandwich, where the shredded meat is arranged on an artisan burger bun and served with freshly cut fries. The tender chicken complements the  savory bacon, melted Swiss cheese, mayo, lettuce, tomato and onion. Other dishes Salguero added to the menu display his creativity, and he sees the reason behind his ambition as simple: his passion for food.

“I love food, and why not pass on good food?” Salguero said. “If I can deliver good food, then let’s do it.”