Aaron Lee

Years ago, in Calca, a city in Peru’s Sacred Valley region of Cusco, Zoraya Zambrano owned a restaurant called G y G, named for her children: Gary and Gloria Marmanillo. Now, at Casa Zoraya, Zambrano covers tables with a vivid rainbow of ajís, ceviches, causas, and pisco sours. Gary and Gloria are by her side once again—backed up by another G in the family, Gary’s girlfriend Gwennyth Holle. I met them all at the restaurant this spring to hear about their history, Gloria or Gwen translating for me as the family switched back and forth between English and Spanish, talking over each other and correcting each other as families do.

Zambrano first moved to the United States to make money to eventually send Gary to medical school in Bolivia. She came to Portland in 2003 and worked for many years at another family-owned Peruvian restaurant, Andina, with Doris Rodriguez de Platt and the Platt family—“beautiful, beautiful people,” Gloria says, a word she otherwise only uses to describe the vibrant colors of farmers markets in Cusco.

Gloria, who came to the US in 2011, once enrolled in culinary school, but now says with a laugh, “You don’t want to see me in a kitchen, trust me.” So the irony was heavy when one day while Gary was visiting from Bolivia, he sheepishly asked her to tell their mother that he didn’t want to go back to medical school—he wanted to cook and come to the US to do it.

They laugh about it now, but at the time, Zambrano says, she “cried and cried.” In fact, when I ask her if she wants to spend the rest of her working life cooking, she says, “It depends on which day you ask,” rolling her eyes, then laughing. It wasn’t her goal in life to own a restaurant, but her parents owned a restaurant, and it’s always been what she falls back on.

Because of the close relationship Zambrano had developed with the team at Andina, Gary was able to work in some of the top-tier restaurants in Peru and elsewhere, though he speaks most warmly of his time at Portland’s Paiche. He says he learned a lot, but Gloria is quick to add that part of the reason he loved the place is because he met Holle there. (He gave her a Paiche card with his number on it, and he claims she didn’t call him until she was at a grocery store and saw a Willamette Week cover naming Paiche restaurant of the year.)

So it was a combination of the mother’s fate to cook and the son’s passion for it that led them, while visiting Gloria in North Portland, to respond to the “For Lease” sign in the window at Lombard and Albina. Once again, without planning to, Zoraya Zambrano owned a restaurant.

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Now Gary works with his mother in the kitchen, where he feels like he belongs. “It’s not that I’m especially happy in the kitchen,” he says, “but it’s my space.” He keeps the menu fresh and unique, in part by frequenting farmers markets for ingredients uncommon in Peruvian dishes, like local mushrooms. At one point during the interview, he leaves the table for a few minutes and brings me a pretty, delectable pisco-infused take on tiramisu.

I realize that while my siblings could certainly cook a fine meal, I can’t imagine trying to open a business with them. I say that to this family, and they laugh again, all together. Gloria warns, “Don’t do it!” Her brother Gary says, “We fight sometimes, maybe most of the time”—more laughter—“but it’s worth it.” Zambrano, ever their mother, says they complement each other, and it’s been a “learning experience” for them as a family. Her name may be on the door, but it’s clear that after years of working for her children, even very far from them, she’s happy they’re finally working together, for each other.