Carlos’ tale: riches-to-rags-to-riches story

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Carlos Echeandia insists his caviar appetizer would be worth $400 a serving, but he charges $200 so more diners can have the experience.

Carlos Echeandia insists his caviar appetizer would be worth $400 a serving, but he charges $200 so more diners can have the experience.

Carlos’ Bistro

Address: 1025 S. 21st St.

Phone: 471-2905

Average entrée price: $50

Years in business: Nine

Carlos’ Bistro is a brown, single-story building surrounded by parking spaces on 21st Street just south of U.S. Highway 24.

Hundreds of cars pass by its simple, stucco façade every day, but few know that inside is one of the region’s culinary delicacies, where a sampling of caviar is listed on the appetizer menu for $200 an order.

Its ritzy status, however, is not lost on the area’s fine-dining aficionados who frequent the eatery — nor on Zagat, the renowned restaurant-rating website, which recently crowned Carlos’ as the best in the state.

Owner Carlos Echeandia is aware of his restaurant’s veiled popularity.

“For the last nine years, we have been in all these magazines and getting all these international awards, but on the other side, no one here knows we exist,” he said.

He and his wife Marcia opened the bistro in October 2004, fulfilling a three-decades-long dream.

Echeandia grew up wealthy in Peru, the son of parents who worked in politics during President Fernando Belaúnde Terry’s administration. His parents hosted lavish parties and had a penchant for the finest foods.

“I was a brat,” he said. “I was used to getting the best.”

But when Belaúnde was overthrown in 1968, Echeandia’s family lost everything and his life changed dramatically.

Humble beginnings

He moved to the United States and found himself working in the kinds of restaurants and hotels his family would have patronized.

His first job was washing dishes in Anaheim, Calif., where Disneyland is located. Then he was a busboy and finally a waiter.

“I was making good money as a waiter,” he said. “I wanted to buy a condo in Los Angeles.”

Even then, real estate in California was expensive. Echeandia saw an ad for a $50,000 house in Colorado Springs and couldn’t believe how cheap it was. Lured by inexpensive real estate, he got on a plane.

“I was wearing sandals and a Hawaiian shirt,” he said. “Where I am from in Peru the snow is there in the Andes, but never down in Lima. I get to the tiny little Colorado Springs airport and look out and the snow is everywhere.”

It didn’t seem like a vibrant or lively place, he said.

“I saw everything, it was brown and white, and I thought, ‘OK, $50,000 for a house in a dead state,’” Echeandia said.

But he stayed long enough to see summer and to fall in love with Marcia while they both worked at the Antlers Hotel downtown. They woke up one morning and decided to get married. They bought gold wedding bands for $25 and went to the courthouse later that same day.

Echeandia brings the same spontaneity to his work. He often helps patrons out of their cars and walks them into the restaurant.

“I believe in perfection,” he said.

His food is more expensive than it is in other local restaurants — even the fine dining options — with most entrees averaging $50.

And there’s a reason for that, Echeandia said. His ingredients are top-quality. His USDA Prime steaks are some of the finest meats available, and his seafood is flown in fresh daily. Every element of every dish, from the Peruvian classic Ribeye Lomo Saltado to the seared jumbo sea scallops, is carefully and thoughtfully seasoned, cooked and plated.

Echeandia had a customer who really wanted breakfast on a busy Saturday night. The chefs prepared bacon, eggs and toast for the man.

“It was beautiful,” Echeandia said. “My chef, he made the bacon shaped like roses.”

The food is expensive, but it’s worth it for the experience, Echeandia said. It’s something extraordinary. And it’s not as expensive as it could be in some cases.

“My caviar, truly, I could sell for $400,” he said.

The markup on his $200 caviar is small and it would cost more in most other places.

“I could charge $400, but no one would buy,” he said. “I don’t do that because I want my diners to have the experience.”

In an effort to give the experience to more people, he also offers an “early-bird” special to people who come to the restaurant between 5 and 5:30 p.m. In most cases, smaller portions of entrees are half-priced.

More diners have been getting the Carlos’ Bistro experience lately, Echeandia said, adding that business has picked up nearly 100 percent in the past six months.

Adjusting to technology

That’s because he’s come to embrace a technology he eschewed for years — the Internet.

Echeandia avoided getting a cell phone until recently. He figured he could always find a pay phone if he needed to call someone.

But there aren’t any pay phones anymore, he said. So, he had to adapt. And people are finding their restaurants on the Internet these days. It wasn’t enough to be featured in Bon Appétit magazine.

Once people are turned on to the restaurant, they need a website to turn to for more information.

“We are getting calls now from Alabama and New York and Oklahoma for reservations,” he said.

People planning vacations find the restaurant in their research. Business groups do the same. Carlos’ was packed on a Monday night earlier this month with 80 visiting radiologists along with regulars and some new patrons from the growing Gold Hill Mesa neighborhood.

Echeandia worked three jobs during most of the time when his children were growing up. He worked toward the dream of owning this bistro. He and Marcia started out leasing the building in 2004 and bought it in 2005.

“My goal is to be here until 2030,” he said.

He always wanted his own restaurant, but never just any restaurant. It had to be the best.

“I just want to say thanks to America for giving me a second chance to get back the lifestyle that was taken from me,” Echeandia said. “I raised my children the way I was raised. I was a brat and they are brats. The opportunity is there for anyone to take.”